The Six Nations organisers meet in Paris on Monday to discuss contingency plans after fears over the cross-border spread of the coronavirus forced the postponement of next Saturday’s match between Ireland and Italy in Dublin and put in doubt England’s trip to Rome on the final weekend. Ireland’s head coach, Andy Farrell, has an extra week to prepare for his side’s final match against the leaders, France, in Paris, but he is not sure if it will go ahead. “We don’t know,” he said. “All we can do is prepare properly for it.”
Ireland’s match against Italy is unlikely to be rescheduled before October. The Aviva Stadium will be unavailable from the middle of May because three Euro 2020 football matches are being staged at the ground and September is a rest month for the country’s national squad following the summer tour to Australia. “We want to play the game,” said Farrell. “A few dates are being bounced around but they are just ideas and we really do not have a clue.”
The Six Nations will be guided by the governments of the countries involved. England are expected to be followed to Rome by 20,000 supporters, but on Friday the UN health agency upgraded the global risk of the virus to very high, saying the increase in the number of cases and the countries involved was “clearly a concern”.
It leaves one of the closest title races for years in danger of a late finish, as happened in 2001 when restrictions on travel because of a foot-and-mouth outbreak meant Ireland did not play their three fellow home unions until September and October of the following season and England missed out on the grand slam after a six-month wait.
While five teams have a mathematical chance of winning the title, Wales and Scotland are all but out of it after losing two of their opening three matches. Yet Wales have the best points difference, +28, of the six teams while Scotland have conceded the fewest points, 32, and the lowest number of tries, two.
Murrayfield is the fourth leg of what France hope will be their first grand slam since 2010. One omen is that their 2002 and 2004 grand slams came after fourth-round victories in Scotland but they have lost on their past two appearances in Edinburgh, campaigns when they finished at the bottom of the try-scoring table in the championship.
This year, no one has scored more than their 11 tries and if only Italy have conceded more, there is a balance to France that has been missing for 10 years, helped by the recruitment of Shaun Edwards as defence coach. A team that flickered on and off like a dodgy light bulb has a glow to it, no longer fumbling around in the dark.
“The players are really buying into how I want them to defend,” said Edwards, “and what has been as important this year is the style of play. French teams in the past have maybe overplayed in their own half, but by mixing French flair with some structured rugby, we were able to beat a high-quality opponent like Wales on their own ground. We have to keep it up next week because when Wales won the grand slam last year, Scotland were the toughest opponents.”
A Scotland victory would mean everyone would have lost at least one match going into the final round. England welcome Wales to Twickenham the day before, having lost at home in the tournament once since 2012, although they drew with Scotland last year.
Eddie Jones was in waspish form after the victory over Ireland in the last round, claiming they could have declared at half-time such had been their dominance. England then led 17-0, which was the same score at the interval in Paris on the opening weekend, although it was France who held the advantage on that occasion. It is probably as well that cricket is not very big there.
England were restored to full power against Ireland, physically dominating opponents who in the previous round had overwhelmed Wales and neutering their experienced half-backs, Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray. The one blemish was missing out on a bonus point that would have closed the gap with France to three points and put them one ahead of Ireland.
If the title comes down to points difference, England and Ireland have an advantage over France because they still have to play Italy, whenever that may be. Les Bleus have a difference of plus 24, England plus 12 and Ireland plus five.
Ireland’s average winning margin at home to Italy in the Six Nations is 26 points, but in the past four matches it is nearly 38 points. England have won by an average of 34 points on their past three visits to Rome, so if France lose one of their final two matches, the Six Nations will need to find an alternative date for Ireland’s match against Italy and England’s if their trip to Rome is called off.
Otherwise, as happened in the World Cup when Typhoon Hagibis claimed three matches, they would go down as 0-0 draws and lead to a pointless finish.