Irish rugby is in a much healthier state than ours - their native strength in depth is enviable

One is reluctant to count chickens before they’re hatched, but it now seems that the France-Scotland match may be played on the last weekend of this month, perhaps the Friday, and that English Premiership clubs may release players to the Scotland squad.

Irish rugby is flourishing. Their teams are riding high in the Pro14, with Leinster going for their fourth successive title. Picture: Donall Farmer/PA

One hopes Racing 92 would permit Finn Russell to play. It would be bizarre if they didn’t, since playing the game outside the international window will be possible only if the Top 14 agrees to the release of players to France.

All one can reasonably say now is that the proposed date is preferable to one at the tail-end of the season or carrying the match over to the autumn. It is certainly preferable to the mooted alternative which was to punish France for the breach of Covid regulations and award us a 28-0 bonus-point victory. Just suppose we were to beat Ireland and Italy at Murrayfield, scoring four tries to get a bonus-point in each game, and finish top of the table, thanks to France beating Wales in their last match, would we really think we were deservedly champions – especially if France had also beaten England at Twickenham and had therefore won all the four matches they had played?

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In any case Gregor Townsend’s men have much to do before they can think of playing France. Ireland, a week on Sunday, will be tough, even at Murrayfield. Like us, they rather shot themselves in the foot against Wales. They then played with a strange timidity against France in Dublin. Against Italy they often looked good, but then, despite Italy playing attractively with ball in hand and scoring some fine tries, their defence has been so porous that their opponents have all looked good.

It’s too soon to preview the Ireland match. All that should be said now is that we haven’t beaten them since 2017 and have either let opportunities slip or simply failed to do ourselves justice in matches since, notably in the World Cup in Japan.

Undeniably Irish rugby is in a much healthier state than ours. Irish provinces occupy the top two places in both Pro14 Conferences, while Edinburgh and Glasgow are each second bottom in theirs. All four Irish provinces seem to have an inexhaustible supply of good young players, no matter how many international ones are missing from their line-up. Like us, of course, they also have their residence-qualified players: the formidable South African CJ Stander and the New Zealanders James Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park; but it’s their native strength in depth that is so impressive and indeed enviable.

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There has been a flurry of contractual news from both Glasgow and Edinburgh, much of it encouraging, and some of the young players whom Danny Wilson and Richard Cockerill have introduced to the Pro14 recently have made encouraging starts. Both clubs have matches against Italian opposition this weekend. Edinburgh should win at home to Benetton. Glasgow’s task away to Zebre may be tougher.

It was a pity that so much of the talk about the Wales-England game was concerned with the refereeing and Pascal Gauzere’s supposed mistakes. The second try was dubious, though a reading of the Law suggests it was properly awarded. As for the first, we would certainly have squawked if it had been awarded against us, but Owen Farrell did seem to take a long time to deliver what should have been a very simple message to his team, and it also looked as if they had decided that Dan Biggar was going to kick at goal – even if no kicking-tee was being brought on. So it was debatable. What was unfortunate is that talk about these tries distracted attention from the referee’s excellent policing of the breakdown. His insistence that players on the ground must roll away, that others entering the breakdown must stay on their feet and that they must enter from behind the ball, not from the side of the ruck or maul, was exemplary, and one could only wish that all referees applied the Law in that area so firmly and consistently.

Finally: when Edinburgh lost by two points to Scarlets last week, they spent the last two or three minutes in the Scarlets 22 trying and, alas, failing to score a try. Can anyone doubt that a fly-half like Dan Carter, Jonny Wilkinson or Ronan O’Gara would have demanded that the forwards should set up a position from which he could drop a goal – and would indeed have done so? Scoring a try or winning a penalty in such a situation usually requires some mistake from the opposition. A drop goal doesn’t. Therefore it’s usually the best option; also, sadly, the one Edinburgh didn’t take.

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