Six Nations sliding doors could improbably favour Ireland in the epilogue | Robert Kitson | Sport

So farewell, then, “Super Saturday”. Hello instead to “At Least There’s Still One Game On Saturday” which is not the catchy promotional slogan the Six Nations organisers ideally wanted. At least the pub and bar owners of Cardiff can breathe a sigh of relief. Even if the coronavirus situation in Wales ramps up significantly, the income raised from 70,000 thirsty rugby punters should insulate them for a while.

Tournament officials will also be grateful for small mercies. Had the spreading virus taken hold in Europe a month earlier the entire championship would have been decimated. There would have been insufficient spare weekends to replay the games, leaving only the options of total cancellation or staging matches behind closed doors. To be required to reschedule only a handful of fixtures is, relatively speaking, a decent result.

The other big winner is Andy Farrell. Suddenly, if his Ireland side can get everything right, an improbable Six Nations title is firmly back on the radar. As was the case during the foot and mouth epidemic of 2001, when a previously rampaging England fell foul of a revitalised Ireland in Dublin, a lot can change between spring and autumn. You would back the Irish, with a home game against Italy as a sighter, to ask tougher questions of France in Paris in seven months’ time than would have been the case this weekend. Win their remaining two matches with a try bonus point apiece and they will finish atop the table despite having lost convincingly at Twickenham.

England and France, on the other hand, will be reflecting on what might have been. If the English had been able to fulfil their fixture against Italy in Rome this weekend, a big away win would almost certainly have materialised. Eddie Jones’s side have just rediscovered a bit of form and the forecast is for dry, calm weather in Rome all week. As for France, coming off the back of their loss in Scotland, they would have shot out of the Stade de France tunnel this Saturday evening with their eardrums still reverberating from Shaun Edwards’ verdict on their Murrayfield malaise. Now they will probably have to reboot themselves from a standing start, with nothing short of a four-try victory against well-prepared opponents likely to be sufficient.

Who knows, either, precisely how many players will have been sidelined by subsequent injury by then? In England’s case, their Saracens contingent will either be coming to terms with Championship rugby or settling into new clubs. Should the final round games be replayed on 31 October, as seems more than likely, two full-on weekends of European club rugby will also be taking place immediately beforehand. England, meanwhile, will have one eye on the All Blacks, who are due to visit Twickenham the following Saturday. For all those reasons and more, England could take the field against Italy this autumn with slightly less momentum than they have currently.

The rugby fates, in short, can be desperately fickle. What might have transpired, for example, had the ball bounced nicely up for Stuart Hogg beneath his own posts in the Murrayfield monsoon against England and the Scotland captain had cleared it safely into touch upfield? It would still have been 3-3 with just over 10 minutes left, rather than England being handed the set-piece platform from which Ellis Genge subsequently claimed the match-clinching score.

Stuart Hogg drops the ball at the vital moment against Ireland

Stuart Hogg drops the ball at the vital moment against Ireland. Photograph: Donall Farmer/PA

To play this tantalising game of sliding doors a little longer, what if Hogg had not dropped the ball in the act of touching down on the opening weekend against Ireland? Scotland lost that match by a solitary score as well: there is a case to be made that, in addition to boasting the tournament’s tightest defensive stats, they could also have been heading to Cardiff this week still unbeaten.

And here is another very good reason, beyond causing further disruption to travelling fans, why Wales wanted the game played now: to avoid any possibility of Gregor Townsend kissing and making up with Finn Russell in the interim. Adam Hastings has looked very promising but, at his best, Russell lends Scotland an entirely different attacking dimension. When people talk about coronavirus reshaping this year’s championship landscape they forget the knock-on effects of Russell-gate as well.

It further underlines what a game of super-fine margins modern rugby now is. Another 90 seconds on the clock at Twickenham and Wales might just have sneaked past a 13-man England. What if Romain Ntamack’s interception try in Cardiff had not happened and Wales had pipped France? The 2020 Six Nations is far from over and there could be another twist or two in the tale.

Below the belt

Whatever Joe Marler was hoping to find in Alun Wyn Jones’s shorts – hand sanitiser or stock-piled loo roll perhaps? – it wasn’t worth it. The England prop forward has been cited for his ball-tampering and is about to be reminded that not everybody shares his sense of humour. Sly actions clearly intended to wind up or taunt opponents are also on the increase across the game, from ironic pats on the head to off-the-ball pushing. This might just be the moment, as Marler awaits his disciplinary hearing on Thursday, for the sporting authorities to issue a statement instructing all players to keep their wandering hands and unsportsmanlike jibes to themselves.

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One to watch

Barely four months after staging the World Cup, there is a very different mood in Japanese rugby. In an unprecedented move the organisers of the domestic Top League have suspended all matches for the rest of the month following a spate of drug-related arrests. Four players have now been arrested for illegal drug possession, including two players from Toyota Verblitz who were convicted last summer. The league’s organisers said the enforced three-round hiatus would be used to conduct “thorough compliance education” to try to restore the league’s reputation. “We have betrayed our fans and society and we must work diligently to restore trust,” said a league spokesperson.

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