Six Nations

Six Nations Championship 2014

Biggest hurdles up next for grand slam contenders France and Ireland

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 February, 2014, 4:59pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 October, 2014, 4:16pm

Six Nations organisers will be praying France and Ireland remain unbeaten through to their showdown on March 15, but prior to that the only two remaining contenders for the grand slam face their biggest hurdles.

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

The last time France beat England and Italy at home, in 2010, they went on to land the grand slam. And Ireland have made their best start to the tournament since they won the grand slam in 2009.

We’re going to have to be bang on, on the day, and there are a lot of variables that will make that difficult
Joe Schmidt

With respect to the Scots and the Italians – whom the French and the Irish play in the penultimate round, respectively – the next games will be the ones both countries consider most threatening to their grand slam hopes.

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

Coach Joe Schmidt, who outsmarted his compatriot at Wales – 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, 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 world champions New Zealand last November and chalking up two wins in the Six Nations, Schmidt is trying to protect his players from rising expectations.

"It's huge [the England game]," he said. "I think part of what we have to manage now is player anxiety because they're going to be made well aware 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 we'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."

His England counterpart Stuart Lancaster said that with his side at home for the next two games 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'."

Meanwhile, 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 - though barrel-chested centre Mathieu Bastareaud seems to have missed the message.

"[The slam] is all-but mission impossible," the Toulon star said.