In 2013, the Six Nations Championship began in Cardiff where Declan Kidney’s Ireland were the visitors and left the Welsh capital with a 30-22 victory.

Following a dismal Autumn Series, Wales were condemned to their fifth successive home defeat for the first time, but the teams would follow different trajectories for the remainder of the competition.

That win was as good as it got for Ireland who failed to claim another victory; Kidney departed as head coach, Warren Gatland lead his side to their 26th championship.

You would have got decent odds at the time that for at least the following five years, the trophy would reside in Dublin or Twickenham.

So what has happened since Gethin Jenkins lifted the trophy five years ago?

The short answer is that Ireland and England have upped the bar, Wales have struggled as they attempt to move towards a more expansive game plan, Scotland have improved after starting from a low base, while Italy are simply Italy.

Conor O’Shea has overhauled structures within the game, but on the pitch they continue to toil. They have just one win in this five-year period.

You need to dig a little deeper to explain, in part, why the tournament has followed the course it has.

Joe Schmidt’s tenure got off to a flying start four years ago, defeat in Twickenham the only blot on the copybook as Ireland went from joint bottom to top of the pile in the space of 12 months.

The following year saw another title, again from England on points difference, before Eddie Jones also had an immediate effect in his new post, leading his charges to a Grand Slam. The title was retained 12 months later, though final round defeat in Dublin was a somewhat anti-climatic finish for the visitors.

A win at Twickenham could see England finish second, but the 2018 campaign has undoubtedly belonged to the men in green.

Ireland's record under Schmidt of three titles in five years is an enviable haul, but it is England who have the slight edge in terms of overall consistency. In 24 games since Wales last won the title, England have won 19 games, two more than Ireland.

With 55 points gathered in that period (the bonus point was only introduced last year), England are one clear of Ireland going into tomorrow’s showdown, and after that there is a significant gap in the standings.

Wales are next, 13 points adrift of Ireland. France are fourth having won only half of their 24 games, which is still 10 points better off than a Scotland side that has shown incremental signs of improvement.

Italy’s 22-19 victory in Murrayfield three years ago is all they have to show for their efforts.

What sets England and Ireland apart?


When it comes to player welfare, the IRFU model is widely held up as one of the standard bearers. The international players are carefully managed, at times to the frustration of the provinces, and it has stood Ireland in good stead.

Two years ago, England took steps to replicate Ireland’s policy when the RFU signed a four-year £200m deal with Premiership rugby to increase the time elite players spend in camp as well as increasing the size of the squads. Eddie Jones has been handed an additional camp prior to the start of each Six Nations, and players do not need to be released back to their clubs.

"In essence they have copied the Irish model to a certain degree, even though the clubs own the players, but they pay the clubs for more release of the top players," says former Ireland international Niall Woods, Managing Director of sports management agency Navy Blue Consulting.

"Those players in the England squad don’t go back and play for their clubs unless the head coach wants them to.

"By and large, they are not far off the way the players are treated here during that period."

Scotland have a similar system to Ireland which allows Gregor Townsend dictate terms, while Wales dual contract system has also seen a reduction in top level games for the players involved.

France’s player welfare system, or lack thereof traditionally, remains a talking point as Top 14 clubs continue to wield the power. The growth and dominance of clubs both domestically and in Europe as seen emphasis shift away from the national team as wealthy benefactors call the shots.

Woods, an agent for the likes of Garry Ringrose, Jordi Murphy, Andrew Conway and Andrew Porter, says that while measures have been taken by Les Bleus to address the issue, their frontline players are spending more time on the pitch than their opponents.

"The French are playing less, but still probably playing five or six games more than the English players, and seven, eight, nine games more than an Irish international player," he says.

"No one knows the exact science of what the magic number of games a player should play."

Another development in the market is the rise of private investment and sponsorship in contract negotiations which has allowed Ireland’s top players remain at home despite lucrative offers abroad.

Johnny Sexton’s return to Leinster was aided by a commercial top up, while Bank of Ireland have reportedly utilised players as brand ambassadors and paid for the privilege.

"That wasn’t there six, seven years ago," he says. "It’s not widespread, but I think a bit more of that will happen to allow the IRFU to compete with the bigger offers in England and France."

Would Ireland have been as successful if more of Schmidt’s front line players moved overseas?


Wales lost just one game in both 2015 and 2016, but last year was a real struggle as Warren Gatland took a hands-off approach with the upcoming Lions tour.

They began this year minus the services of 12 front line players, including eight Lions, before putting Scotland to the sword on the opening day. A terrific defensive display was not enough to thwart England, while they were second best in Dublin, notwithstanding a few, clinical, moments of attacking danger.

Gatland could point to a change in style that is impacting on results. Liam Williams and Steff Evans are providing more thrust in attack, while Hadleigh Parkes is more subtle than some of the previous inside centre selections.

Dan Biggar continues to divide opinion among supporters, while the backrow is stacked with balanced options.

A win over France could secure a runners-up spot for the second time in three years, but with the talent at their disposal, it could well have been more.

France meanwhile are a different kettle of fish and distant memories of champagne rugby and over-flowing trophy cabinets have faded fast. With just one title in the last decade, they don’t look like on improving that statistic any time soon.

In five years, they have scored only two tries more (40) than Italy and have a scoring differential that is 297 points worse off than Ireland.

The FFR have tried to improve structures within the national set-up, but they are now playing catch-up and are still at the behest of the clubs.

With the Top 14 ruling the roost and selecting their players at every opportunity, it is no surprise that French fitness levels during the Championship have lagged behind their rivals.


Ireland’s last Six Nations title was a year where defences were very much on top. In 2015, the champions mustered just eight tries, and while there have been claims that Schmidt’s regimental, yet ultimately successful, gameplan curbs the attacking instincts of his players, that year was a one-off.

It has been suggested in some quarters, particularly in recent years, that Ireland’s attacking threat pales in comparison to England's approach, but the stats don’t exactly back up such claims.

With 70 tries in five seasons, Ireland trail England by just two. Crucially, the 2018 champions’ scoring difference (+305)is 29 points better than their rivals (+276).

Both teams are well ahead in the try scoring stakes from their Six Nations rivals, with Wales (61), Scotland (44) and France (40) trailing in their wake. 

This season Ireland, and in the clinical Jacob Stockdale, (above) have topped the try scoring charts. The men in green have scored more tries than Italy (9) and Scotland (7) combined, while the Ulster winger is only one short of France's overall tally of seven.


For four years under Stuart Lancaster, England finished as runners-up. Jones came in as they swept to a Grand Slam, followed by successful defence of the title 12 months later. This year hasn’t gone to script, but you can’t quibble with that level of consistency.

Ireland's record is even better; first, first, third, second, first. The achievement is even more impressive given this year’s success was won minus the services of Seán O’Brien and Jared Payne.

Josh van der Flier was stretchered off in the opening round while Robbie Henshaw cried off against Italy in the act of scoring. Throw in knocks for Iain Henderson and Tadhg Furlong and Schmidt has been forced into a number of enforced changes, none of which seemed to weaken the side. The strength-in-depth, traditionally such a problem for Ireland, is no longer the concern it once was.

The Ireland team has a settled look to it when all members are fit and ready for selection. Cian Healy seems to have the edge on Jack McGrath at this stage in the front row, but that remains a marginal call, while Iain Henderson, Devin Toner and James Ryan battle for the lock positions.

Backrow is arguably the most competitive area of the team, while Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton have the half-back partnership locked down. The back three of Rob Kearney, Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale looks likely to only change on medical grounds, while centre is another intriguing position. Bundee Aki looks the most natural 12, while Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Chris Farrell have all donned the 13 jersey this term.

Schmidt will hope the consistent team selection will culminate in a grand slam tomorrow, but regardless of the result, the onus is on the challenging pack to play catch-up and wrest the trophy away from Dublin and London.

Six Nations table 2014 – 2018*

* Bonus points introduced for the first time in the 2017 season

Follow England v Ireland on Saturday (KO 2.45pm) via the live blog on RTÉ.ie/Sport and the News Now App, or listen live on RTÉ Radio 1, with commentary from Michael Corcoran and Donal Lenihan.