Dark clouds gathering despite five-point haul

It is easy to forget that Ireland claimed a bonus point win at the weekend such has been the error-strewn 80 minutes and downbeat reaction. This is hardly new territory for the visitors in Rome.

In 12 visits to Italy - the first in 1995 immediately prior to professionalism - the average scoreline reads 31-17 in Ireland's favour. That is roughly Ireland outscoring the hosts four tries to two, which is what was achieved on Sunday.

Since the Azzurri joined the competition, the away day trips have more often than not been sticky affairs for the men in green. Sure there have been some exceptions. The 2017 visit saw Ireland rack up 63 points, while 10 years previous, Ireland also put up more than a half century of points in the Italian capital.

The fixture however has been characterised by workman-like performances, where Italian resistance is worn down. Jamie Heaslip, in light of this, once spoke of "earning the right to go wide" in a nod to the often forward-dominated encounters.

In 2005 the winning margin was 11, in 2011 it was two points and in 2013 Italy upset the odds and recorded their only Six Nations win over Ireland.

Two years later, had the bonus point been in place, Ireland would have departed without one having crossed the whitewash twice in a 26-3 victory.

Whether it is a case of the opposition bringing the game to their level, the level of Irish expectancy, or changes in personnel - most likely a combination of all three factors -  history has shown us that Rome has rarely been the true measure of Irish performance.

The number of errors on Sunday, collectively and individually, will be an obvious concern for the coaching team, but a strong finish to the tournament and the Italian showing is likely to carry considerably less weight.

Italy improving?

Are Italy improving under Conor O’Shea? That appears to be the burning question when it comes to the state of the Six Nations minnows.

Defeat in Rome condemned the Azzurri to their 20th consecutive defeat in the tournament as O’Shea searches for his first Six Nations victory. On the face of it, it may seem a continuation of losses, but the former Ireland international is attempting to make wholesale structural changes throughout Italian rugby, the fruits of which may not be seen at the top level under his watch. 

Italy have finished ahead of Ireland in the last two World Rugby U20 Championships and Leinster’s closest challengers in Conference B of the Pro 14 are the ever-improving Benetton.

"You have those who know and work in rugby circles and there is no question it is going in the correct direction," Zebre head coach Michael Bradley told RTÉ Sport when asked about O'Shea's impact in the country.

Women’s international Jenny Murphy said there are signs of Italian improvement, pointing to their 13, 11 and 10 point losing margins to date. Others view it in a different light.

Former Ireland international Shane Horgan was adamant at the weekend that the Italians have made no progress, insisting the opposition have simply been below par.

There are merits to his argument. Scotland coughed up three tries and 19 points in the final nine minutes at Murrayfield with the contest already done and dusted in the opening round, while Wales made 11 changes in personnel for their trip to the Eternal City.

Ireland, normally so precise, conceded more turnovers (18, with half of those from dropped balls) than their hosts and coughed up nine penalties, one more than their opening two games combined.

How much of that is down to the opposition and their approach, and how much is down to Italy’s game plan is a matter for debate, but until the Italians clock a win, the argument championing the national team’s progress – regardless of improvements at grassroots - becomes a harder one to propose.

New-look France promise greater threat

It is perhaps the most frequently used cliché in rugby – which French team will turn up?

Les Bleus are certainly not the force they once were - they have inexplicably rolled over to have their bellies tickled by a number of teams in recent years - but that never seems to be the case against Ireland.

In fact when it comes to this particular fixture, the French are very consistent indeed. Since the heavy 2010 defeat in Paris, when Ireland’s hopes of a second successive grand slam were dashed, it has been an almost even contest.

In the 11 subsequent games, Ireland shade the head-to-head 5-4, with two draws highlighting the nature of the contests. The average winning margin in that time is less than five points.

Indeed take out the 24-9 victory over the French at the 2015 World Cup, and the margin is little more than a penalty kick. Few French supporters need reminding of Johnny Sexton's late drop goal heroics 12 months ago.

The worry for Ireland is that the seemingly rudderless France appear to be improving. Admittedly the only way was up after the abject display at Twickenham, but head coach Jacques Brunel, even by simply picking players in their more accustomed positions, has his side playing with a bit more conviction.

The TMO ruled out four possible tries in Paris, but still blew Scotland away with ease.

Doubts will remain until they put away one of the big hitters, but Dublin next time out against an Irish side a little low on confidence, would be a step in the right direction.

Romain N’Tamack looks like a player who will spend a long career in the blue jersey, whatever number is on his back, while scrum-half Antoin Dupont could be a game changer for the French.

He was outstanding against the Scots. He injects real tempo to the attack, has an eye for a break himself and is willing and effective in his defensive duties. The 22-year-old looks like a seasoned pro even though he only reached double figures in caps this term.

France may have stumbled upon a well-balanced and dangerous half-back partnership, but the Aviva Stadium will be a real litmus test for its development. Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton may be experiencing somewhat of a dip by their high standards, but are itching to get back to 2018 form.

Should the callow French pairing come through that examination, then their standing will rise even further.

Welsh on a mission

At an awards banquet in London last month, Warren Gatland was asked how his team would do in the upcoming Guinness Six Nations.

In a typically self-confident response, the New Zealander said that if they could win the tournament opener against France in Stade de France, they would win the tournament.

Johnny Sexton was also in attendance that night and after receiving another accolade on the night, joked that if Wales did win in Paris, there was no point in them taking to the Aviva Stadium pitch to play England the next day as the title would already be decided.

Wales of course won in Paris and after ending England’s grand slam ambitions, look well placed to claim a third under the watch of the Kiwi.

Scotland on current form appear unlikely to derail that bid in round four and the responsibility is likely to rest on Irish shoulders to spoil the Welsh party.

Cory Hill’s try summed up their afternoon against England. For 34 phases the Welsh chipped away before eventually bashing the English door, sparking bedlam in the stands. It was a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

Liam Williams is the outstanding full-back of the competition, Josh Williams is excelling in his second Six Nations campaign, the midfield is a blend of guile and defensive ruggedness, while out-half Dan Biggar looks in pole position to return to the starting XV.

The pack, led by inspirational Alun Wyn-Jones and a ferocious backrow, are bristling and in the midst of a record 12 successive victories, are rightly confident to on at least securing the championship.

Only significant and improvement from the Scots and Irish can prevent the clean sweep.

Rankings merit

"If I look at England and what we have, there's no reason we shouldn't be number one in the world and that's what we're working towards," Eddie Jones said in 2016 when speaking about the world rankings. It is one of the few occasions when a coach specifically mentions the official pecking order.

His England side dropped below Wales into fourth spot following the defeat in Cardiff, with both chasing Ireland in second. From there it’s a notable gap to world champions New Zealand.

Few within the game, publicly at least, pay much heed to the rankings, but there is something telling in the top four, and the margins between them.

Just 2.65 ranking points separate England, Wales and Ireland, while 2.62 ranking points is the gap between Ireland and New Zealand. It is a nod to the notion that there is very little to separate the top three in the Six Nations (home advantage and injuries quite often the differentiating factors), and the world champions.

There is a similar sized gap to fifth-place South Africa, with the Springboks enjoying a buffer to Australia in sixth place.

The chasing pack can easily swap in and out of position, but there is a clear pecking order at the top.