This year’s Six Nations is a vital exercise in finalising an Irish squad capable of challenging for the World Cup later this year. As such many people expect Ireland to win it. While the fact it occurs in a Rugby World Cup year makes it more significant, it should be noted that three of the last four winners did not win the regional tournament just before the World Cup. (1999- Australia, 2007-South Africa, 2011- New Zealand). Nevertheless it will be a decent indicator of playing style and squad depth for all teams.
The opening game is on Friday the 6th of February between Wales and England. For Wales, this comes at an ideal time. It is quite possible that, currently, Wales are floating under the radar, a disappointing Six Nations last year and mixed Autumn Internationals means they are considered a 4/1 shot for the Six Nations and 20/1 for the World Cup.
Wales however are the only Northern hemisphere team with an entirely established (almost predictable) starting team, playing style and long-serving coach. This either suggests stability or staleness, for Gatland many of the questions facing his opponents are already answered.
The issue is that Wales have a few big questions as opposed to many small ones. Jonathon Davies, George North and Alex Cuthbert are all established players facing big questions in relation to regaining from, defensive frailties and competition from Liam Williams respectively. Gatland has shown he has the bottle to drop big-names (cue painful memories of a betrayed O’Driscoll) but there is a fine balance to be struck here that I can’t see Gatland finding.
England pose a different question. They easily have the most competitive squad with amazing competition for places, particularly in their pack. They probably deserve their tag as favourites. Until recently there has been a misguided belief that Lancaster was trying to bring a New Zealand like game-plan with a suffocating defence aspect. I never saw true evidence to suggest this was his goal and thing the current power game with the half-backs bossing the game via kicking and big ball-carriers is the way England are set to continue.
Their game-plan actually resembles Ireland’s except they have a better bench and a back three (Brown, May, Watson) who are not only defensively solid but very creative if necessary. Their issue is a centre partnership and who to pick at ten. I think Tuilagi and Burrell will make up their centre while Ford should get the nod at ten. Make no mistake, if England nail these positions and ensure proper on-field decision making they’ll be an incredibly competitive outfit.
Italy and Scotland had good Autumn Internationals but in Italy’s case there still is not enough talent in their back line and are still hugely reliant on Sergio Parisse. Despite having three home games, the match they would identify as possibly winning, against Scotland, is in Murrayfield and another winless Six Nations could be on the cards.
Scotland however have shown massive improvement under the highly regarded Vern Cotter. Fly-half Finn Russell looks more than capable while the brotherly-partnership in the second row of Johnnie and Richie Gray adds weight to a strong pack. They will still finish fifth but away in Murrayfield is a potential banana skin for Ireland.
France’s squad looks the best on paper. They’ve incredible balance and the potential for a really exciting back-line. They have two issues, one small and one big. The first is uninspiring half-backs (Camille Lopez has brought a real calmness to the Clermont back-line that they lacked with Brock James so may prove me wrong) and the second is a bizarre coach who refuses to pick his best player, Phillippe Saint-Andre. With a proper game-plan and coach they’d most likely win this Six Nations, but they don’t have either and play Ireland and England away, they’ll most likely finish third.
For Ireland, our first Six Nations with O’Driscoll means these games are key in developing a proper centre partnership. D’arcy was a terrific centre but isn’t the same player lately and needs to be dropped from the starting fifteen.
The return of Cian Healy is a massive addition but despite the success of the last twelve months, unless Ireland show a capability to be more expansive at times breaking down teams like England or New Zealand will be a very difficult task. The poor performances of three of the four provinces hopefully won’t impact morale.
Most likely Schmidt will give Madigan the start against Italy (Sextons been ruled out for the opener) while Reddan will probably back-up Murray due to his experience, fast-ball ability and familiarity with Schmidt.
Ireland don’t need to win this Six Nations but a slightly more developed game-plan and second place finish is a realistic ask. The fact that they play England at home could see them win the Six Nations but I don’t think they will.
Prediction. 1- England 2- Ireland 3- Wales 4- France 5- Scotland 6- Italy
By Maurice Brosnan
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