Grand Slam hurdles loom

Tue, 11 Feb 2014 10:23
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Grand Slam contenders France and Ireland will square off on March 15 but face their biggest hurdle in the next round of Six Nations games.

Grand Slam contenders France and Ireland will square off on March 15 but face their biggest hurdle in the next round of Six Nations games.

The French will play two-time defending champions Wales in Cardiff on Friday week while a day later the Irish are at Twickenham to meet England.

England can count themselves unlucky not to be unbeaten themselves, having lost to France at the death of their thrilling opening game.

However, both the French and the Irish can be encouraged by historical precedents.

The last time France beat England and Italy at home - they saw off the Italians 30-10 on Sunday - in 2010 they went on to land the Grand Slam.

Ireland for their part have made their best start - beating Scotland and Wales at home - to the tournament since they won the Grand Slam in 2009.

With all due respect to the Scots and the Italians - whom the French and the Irish play in the penultimate round of matches, the next games will be the ones both teams will be looking to as the one where their Grand Slam hopes could end.

The other game sees Italy hosting Scotland with the most positive thing to be said that whoever comes out on top of that clash will probably consign the other to the wooden spoon.

Ireland's task of securing the Grand Slam is put into perspective by the fact that the last time they won in both France and England was in the 1972 Five Nations.

Kiwi coach Joe Schmidt, who outsmarted his compatriot Wales handler Warren Gatland in Saturday's 26-3 win, acknowledges now he has a different challenge on his hands.

When he took over initially after Declan Kidney was sacked last year - only four years after delivering the Grand Slam - the 48-year-old Kiwi had to rebuild the shattered morale of the side.

Now after coming within a whisker of being the only side to beat the world champions New Zealand last November and their two wins in the Six Nations Schmidt is trying to protect the players from rising expectations.

"It's huge (the England game)," said Schmidt.

"I think part of what we have to manage now is player anxiety because they're going to be made well aware, going for a break for a couple of days before we go to Clonmel, of the expectation and the public expectation.

"We want to actually develop but that expectation does build anxiety because you know to meet that expectation you're going to have to be bang on, on the day, and there are a lot of variables that will make that difficult to do.

"And that's our challenge," he added.

His England counterpart Stuart Lancaster - whose side easily disposed of Scotland 20-0 keeping their opponents off the scoresheet in games between the two for the first time since 1978 - said with their next two games at home they want to put on a show that will bring their supporters to their feet.

"I'm pleased that we've had a good win and that can take us into two massive home games.

"Playing at Twickenham is a big deal for us, so it's good to win now, to take us into the next game with confidence.

"They (the Irish) should be looking at us and thinking 'This is going to be a good old game'."

While Wales captain Sam Warburton insists the Welsh can go on and become the first team to win three successive Six Nations titles - they also lost to Ireland last year and went on to retain the crown - others are not so confident.

France may not have looked entirely convincing in either of their wins but the confidence gained from their first back to back victories since November 2012 sends them off in good heart and with coach Philippe Saint-Andre declaring they have a fierce desire to beat the Welsh.

The 46-year-old's gung-ho attitude appears to have fallen on deaf ears with regard to his barrel-chested centre Mathieu Bastareaud.

"It is all but mission impossible," said the Toulon star.


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