Ireland early contenders to dent All Black hopes

Luke PHILLIPS
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Ireland went through the Six Nations unbeaten to install themselves as potential challengers for the World Cup

Ireland emerged deserved Grand Slam champions but New Zealand will likely not be quaking in their boots at the thought of competition from other Six Nations teams come next year's Rugby World Cup in Japan.

Ireland, expertly guided by Kiwi coach Joe Schmidt, saw off England on Saturday to secure a third Grand Slam.

Eddie Jones saw his record as England coach go from 24 wins from 25 Tests to 24 from 28 after successive losses to Scotland, France and Ireland that left the English with their worst Championship finish since 1983, above only winless Italy in the standings.

"If you think you're in a good place, that's probably the time to start worrying," Jones had predicted before the tournament.

Wales snatched second place after an unconvincing victory over France while Scotland's win in Italy secured third place ahead of the French.

"It's hard for it not to be the high point, because right here, right now it's a little bit of history for us," Schmidt said of his team's achievement, capping a 12-match winning streak.

"It's a really neat story of a year that has managed to see us win every game that we played which is incredibly special."

Schmidt, who led his team to a first-ever victory over New Zealand in November 2016, has cleverly blended veterans like leading half-back pairing Jonny Sexton and Connor Murray, full-back Rob Kearney and skipper Rory Best with the youth of James Ryan, Garry Ringrose, Dan Leavy and Jacob Stockdale.

The tournament as a whole was generally a tight, competitive one, and Sexton's last-gasp 42-metre drop-goal after 41 phases to win in Paris was the pivotal moment.

That slice of brilliance was not repeated by England, whose lack of a mobile openside flanker and the absence of powerful ball-carrying No 8 Billy Vunipola meant for a chronic time at the breakdown.

- Jones optimistic -

Jones remained optimistic despite his side's failings, saying: "When you take over it is reasonably easy, like I did with England, it is quite easy to improve them quickly because you get fix certain things that need fixing quickly.

"But internal mechanisms take time to fix and that is the slow burner. Unless you fix them they catch up with you when you get to the big tournaments such as the World Cup.

"So for us it has been an enormously beneficial tournament if disappointing because we are finding out about how to be a better team."

Jones will need to fix the breakdown as a priority, with an eye on cutting down the huge number of penalties given away. With no quick ball, the much vaunted attacking George Ford/Owen Farrell axis floundered and revealed a toothless midfield that could perhaps be enhanced by moving the creative Elliot Daly in off the wing.

New Zealand coach Steve Hansen said that England had suffered from providing the bulk of the squad for the British and Irish Lions in last year's drawn series against the All Blacks, citing player fatigue.

"You don't want to be panicking too much up there. England are a good rugby side," said Hansen, whose team will play England on November 10 at Twickenham.

"They have some very good players and one of the best coaches in the world. They should have a bit faith and I'm sure they'll come back.

"Yes they've lost three in a row and that's the reality, but it doesn't make them a poor side and nor does it mean they're in crisis."

- Wales, Scots show promise -

Wales coach Warren Gatland saw his side lose at Twickenham and Dublin, but notch up three home wins. Questions persist over fly-half, but there has been a considerable strengthening in depth elsewhere. The return of Lions Sam Warburton and Jonathan Davies can only bolster its consistency.

The good news for Scotland is they are establishing a style of play that suits their resources, with an aggressive breakdown allied to a willingness to attack with ball in hand as evidenced by the creativity of Finn Russell and try-scoring exploits of Huw Jones.

Coach Gregor Townsend will have to shore up the team's defence, not only out wide, where they look desperately vulnerable, but also in simple first-up tackles.

France, who travel to New Zealand in June, struggled to score tries, but coach Jacques Brunel, whose captain Guilhem Guirado was outstanding, has called up a raft of inexperienced players and installed a pragmatism that means they can stay in the hunt in any match.

Italy conceded 203 points in their five matches, but coach Conor O'Shea was confident that they were moving in the right direction.

"Mark my words, we're coming. We want to play and the more we do the better we'll become. There are so many positives... we've seen our future, the style and the game that we want, the quality of our young players," he said.