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Monday Maul
Ireland must target back-to-back titles
Tom Hamilton
March 17, 2014
Ireland receive a heroes welcome © Getty Images
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The 2014 Six Nations has been and gone and the tournament has been painted green. Monday Maul looks back at the weekend's talking points and assess the fortunes of the six teams over the course of the championship.

Ireland must now secure back-to-back titles

Ireland were deserved winners of the crown. First of all, they should focus on the positives of this championship. Peter O'Mahony grew at blindside while Chris Henry proved himself to be an able rival to Sean O'Brien for the openside berth. Jonathan Sexton's form improved as the tournament went on while they have a good backbone to the team with Cian Healy, Paul O'Connell, Jamie Heaslip, Conor Murray and Rob Kearney all key players.

Fantasy team of the round

  • Outside backs: Mike Brown (England), Liam Williams (Wales), George North (Wales)
  • Centres: Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland), Jamie Roberts (Wales)
  • Half-backs: Owen Farrell (England), Conor Murray (Ireland)
  • Front-row: Mako Vunipola (England), Dimitri Szarzewski (France), Cian Healy (Ireland)
  • Second-row: Courtney Lawes (England), Alun-Wyn Jones (Wales)
  • Back-row: Chris Robshaw (England), Toby Faletau (Wales), Chris Henry (Ireland)

The next mission for Joe Schmidt will be how to replace the outgoing Brian O'Driscoll? Robbie Henshaw has been mentioned by the great man while Fergus McFadden will also have eyes on the shirt.

Thirdly the question is, can they push on and be one of the contenders for the 2015 World Cup? With a summer tour schedule of two Tests in Argentina, they must win both and push on come November. With France and England at home in next year's Six Nations, they should be targeting a second championship on the bounce. If they manage the above then they should be regarded as real contenders for the World Cup.

England need to stay grounded

Three successive second-placed finishes suggests England have found unspectacular consistency but they have showed improvement this year in the tournament. They are playing with a new attacking verve as shown in their seven-try win over Italy but despite the current good feeling surrounding this team, they must not get carried away.

There were plenty of positives for England in this tournament - the form of Danny Care, Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, Owen Farrell and Mike Brown. There was also the emergence of Luther Burrell as a Test centre and Joe Marler's impressive performances at loose-head.

But the lack of tries from the flank remains a worry and also squandered opportunities - there were more tries on that Rome pitch than England took. The real test awaits the team in June when they take on the All Blacks, only then will we know how good this England side really is.

England infographic
© Scrum.com
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Flash in the pan brilliance

It was a topsy-turvy campaign for Wales. Their free-flowing end-to-end tries score against Scotland were a stark contrast to their dire kicking game at Twickenham and ineffective attack against Ireland.

Perceptions of Wales being hamstrung by a post-British & Irish Lions tour lull were received with mixed messages from the camp. There were no such ill effects against Scotland. Helped by the one-man advantage, Wales played a lovely brand of counter attacking rugby with the back three clicking and benefitting from real direction at fly-half. Liam Williams also showed his Test credentials at fullback.

The attention now shifts to the tour of South Africa. As things stand, Dan Biggar should start at fly-half against the Springboks with James Hook acting as back-up. With Leigh Halfpenny and Sam Warburton both potentially sidelined, they will need a calm kicking presence in the side and that man is Biggar. This was a poor Six Nations campaign by Wales' high standards, their losses to Ireland and England showed some areas they need to improve on, but they are not a bad team overnight and should cause South Africa some difficulties.

France built on shaky foundations

Before the tournament, if history had anything to do with it, France were favourites for the title. They had won every championship that followed a Lions year since 1998 but come 2014, three wins from five ended that trend.

France were sometimes their worst enemy with frustration seeing them lose concentration while there also seemed to be little logic behind Philippe Saint-Andre's scattergun team selections. But the irony is they were still in with a shout of winning the title come the final round.

Against Ireland, Remi Tales looked more assured than Jules Plisson at No.10 and Maxime Machenaud did enough to keep him higher in the pecking order than Jean-Marc Doussain. Mathieu Bastareaud had his best game of the tournament and Brice Dulin did well at fullback. But what cannot be ignored is the constant impression the French camp is a disgruntled place at present. Their tour of Australia could make or break this team ... and the coach.

A dismal end to a poor campaign for Scotland

The sight of Scotland's most gifted player slumping down the tunnel just 22 minutes into their game against Wales compounded what has been a troubling campaign. A last-gasp Duncan Weir drop-goal saved them from the ignominy of the Wooden Spoon but that was a rare ray of light amid the deluge of doom.

Standing on the horizon and looming ever closer is the sizeable presence of Clermont's Vern Cotter. He will inherent a squad low on confidence and morale with a small pool of players to pick from.

Leinster influence - infographic
© Scrum.com
Enlarge

There are positives for Scotland supporters to hold on to. The centre partnership has grown and David Denton is a bulldozing presence at the back of the scrum. They can also take pride from the manner in which they controlled the second-half of their game against Wales, it was sheer bloody-mindedness that prevented the hosts from racking up more tries. Apart from that, Scotland will need re-building this summer. Over to you Mr. Cotter.

Italy take a step forward and two back

This was meant to be the championship where we saw Italy combine a previously dominant pack with a new bunch of exciting backs. But it never clicked. There were signs of promise in the backs with Michele Campagnaro and Leonardo Sarto coming of age while Tommaso Allan and Edoardo Gori looked assured at half-back but hints of Italy becoming a top-three side in the championship look few and far between.

Against England they attempted to play the opponents at their own game but were second-best in every facet of the game bar the front-row. It is a tough challenge for Jacques Brunel to turn this Italy side into a group of players who can reach the knockouts of the 2015 World Cup. "We are behind where we want to be" was Brunel's assessment.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.

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