6 NATIONS PREVIEW

(Before I begin I have some good news/bad news to report: Firstly the good, several Irish players, including Paul O’Connell and Leinster duo Sean O’Brien and Jaimie Heaslip, have signed contracts with the IRFU, meaning they will remain playing in Ireland for the foreseeable future.

There was a worry that our best players would accept the lucrative contracts offered to them by French clubs and they would travel overseas. Kudos to the IRFU for recognising the importance of keeping the most talented players in the country.

The bad news is that Keith Earls has been ruled out of the 6 Nations after suffering an injury. He joins fellow wing, Tommy Bowe on the side-lines. Earls is a very exciting player and he is a loss. Ireland do have some classy wings in the squad (eg Luke Fitzgerald, Simon Zebo and Dave Kearney) but Earls is still a loss, especially as he can cover at centre and full-back.)

Well, the 2014 6 Nations kicks-off in just over a week and it looks to be a very exciting tournament. With no Lions tour or World Cup to follow it this year it remains the focal point of the season for the players. It’s quite an open tournament this year, though Wales are favourites to achieve their 3rd straight Champions trophy (they won the Grand Slam in 2012, and the Championship last year).

England have also done very well in recent years, ranking 2nd in both the 2012 and 2013 tournaments (they lost on points difference in 2013). England are finally reclaiming the form that had deserted them since winning the World Cup in 2003.

In contrast, France are in a terrible state, having lost 5 of their last ten 6 Nations’ games, and drawn twice (both times against Ireland). France even ‘won’ the Wooden Spoon, their worst result in the tournament since 1999, last year. With only 3 victories in the last 2 tournaments, the players no their backs are to the wall.

Also, coach Phillipe Saint-Andre will know that another poor tournament may have the French Rugby Union looking for a new coach to lead them into next year’s World Cup. France will also be without their captain, Thierry Dusaoutoir, who’s a huge loss, not only as a captain, but he’s also 1 of the best players around.

Ireland have a strong squad this year, with several players playing to their best ability. Ireland have a very good side, which could easily match any team in the tournament: 15. Rob Kearney 14. Dave Kearney 13. Brian O’Driscoll 12. Gordon D’Arcy 11. Luke Fitzgerald 10. Jonny Sexton 09. Conor Murray 08. Jaimie Heaslip 07. ? 06. Peter O’Mahony 05. Paul O’Connell 04. Mike McCarthy/Devin Toner 03. Cian Healy 02. Rory Best 01. Mike Ross

Player-for-player that’s 1 of the best sides in the world. Ireland showed against New Zealand how great they can play when it’s asked of them. The problem is that that performance was a one-off, born out of desperation. Ireland had played a horrible game against Australia, only the week before with the same team.

Ireland have shown over the years that they can pull out a great performance but only when there is nothing expected of them. They need to be able to channel that will against every opponent, like they did when they won the Grand Slam in 2009.

After that great day, it was hoped that Ireland would begin a new revival. Unfortunately, since that day, Ireland’s great victories have been few and far between. The greatest moments have come with a win against Australia in the last World Cup and two great performances against New Zealand (though the All Blacks beat us in both games).

In the 6 Nations, though, Ireland have been pretty dire in recent years. No offence to Italy but losing to them last year was a pretty low moment. Ireland were also embarrassed by England and even Scotland. Our 2 draws against France would have been celebrated 10 years ago, but now they seem rather meaningless as the French are shadows of their former selves.

The main problems Ireland have are a lack of winner mentality and a lack of strength in depth. There’s nothing wrong with the players ability (the Irish provinces have dominated European rugby in recent years) but they still seem to lack that killer instinct when they come together to face other countries. I truly believe that we have a better team than New Zealand, but the All Blacks just have an aura about them that no other team, except maybe South Africa, possess.

Ireland can do great things they just need to be able to believe. Also, our 1st team is one of the best in the world, but there isn’t a lot of quality back-up in key positions, highlighted by the loss of Sean O’Brien. Jonny Sexton is also a worry. He’s already had a very long season and is playing a match against Toulouse a week before Ireland’s opening game against Scotland.

If Sexton gets injured Ireland’s main replacements are Ian Madigan of Leinster and Ulster’s Paddy Jackson. Neither are tested at the highest level and Madigan hasn’t been getting the games for Leinster. Madigan is lining out for the Irish Wolfhounds tomorrow (Jan 25th) to get some much needed game time.

It’s hoped that new coach Joe Schmidt will be able to work the same magic with Ireland that he had achieved with Leinster. There were glimpses of that during the November Internationals but now comes the real test. Also, Brian O’Driscoll will want his last ever 6 Nations to be a memorable one.

SCOTLAND Irelands kicks off the 6 Nations tournament against Scotland, next Sunday 2nd February, at 3. The game will take place in the Aviva, hopefully giving Ireland the home advantage. Scotland are a very difficult team to predict.

Scotland showed some very good form last season, ranking 3rd in the 6 Nations (though they actually lost more games than they won. They were really the best of a bad bunch. 1 of those victories was against Ireland). Scotland’s form didn’t improve later in the season, though, their only victories coming against teams like Japan and they lost a close game to Australia.

Scotland have a pretty strong group of players, though they’ll be without Euan Murray who got injured in a freak accident. Stuart Hogg had a very good Lions tour and may be a quality out-half for the Scots. Richie Gray, Jim Hamilton, Roy Laidlaw and Sean Lamont are also top quality players.

Ireland will want to get their campaign off to a good start and I think that they may prove to be too much for Scotland.

(Also on that 1st weekend, England play France. This has been traditionally 1 of the real highlights of the 6 Nations. It should show the quality of both sides for the rest of the tournament. I think England will win this 1. If France manage a win they may very well win the whole tournament).

WALES Ireland next host Wales, on February 8th (Sat) at 2.30. Ireland and Wales are probably the 2 most evenly matched teams in the whole tournament. Ireland’s game against Wales last year saw what turned out to be the best performance by the Irish (and the only victory) in the tournament, whilst

 

Wales recovered from a slow start and went on to win the rest of their games and ultimately the Championship. The Welsh team have been the strongest European team in recent seasons, though they’ve been pretty poor outside the tournament, losing several games to the Southern Hemisphere giants, including about 8 losses to Australia!

The Welsh players will be encouraged, though, by the fact they contributed the most of all the countries to the recent Lions series victory, as they provided the coach, the captain and the bulk of the squad. In fact, Wales can now call on a nearly full 15 (minus out-half Dan Biggar, who’s a great player) that have Lions experience. Unfortunately, lock Ian Evans has been ruled out of the whole 6 Nations for stamping on Mike McCarthy during a Heineken Cup game.

Still, Wales have a terrific side. Danger men include Leigh Halfpenny (player of the Lions series), giant wings Alex Cuthbert and George North, 1 of the best centre combinations in the world in Jonathan Davies and Jaimie Roberts (provided they both aren’t injured), a world-class back-row and 2 Lions captains in Sam Warburton and Alun Wyn-Jones.

There are some serious problems in the Welsh rugby at the moment, though, with the WRU clashing with the Welsh clubs over the future of the game in Wales (the Union want the clubs to remain in the Heineken, the clubs want to pursue their own deals and feel that they aren’t getting enough assistance from the Union. Several of the top Welsh players have signed with English and French clubs in recent years). Theses problems may have adverse affects on the players during the tournament.

Another thing that may add spice to the Ireland/Wales clash is the fact that Wales coach Warren Gatland dropped Brian O’Driscoll from the Lions test squad for the deciding 3rd test. While Gatland’s decision was vindicated, it may still rankle with the Irish players (and a lot of Irish fans). I’d say the papers will make a lot of it (probably more than is necessary).

(Trivia note: Gatland actually gave O’Driscoll his 1st caps for Ireland, back when Gatland coached the Irish rugby team, before been replaced by Eddie O’Sullivan in 2001). Ireland v Wales is too close to call. I don’t think Wales will be undercooked this time the teams face off. Both teams are very even so the game should go close to the wire. Ireland can’t concede too many penalties as Halfpenny is almost certain to punish us for them.

ENGLAND There’s then a gap before Ireland travel to Twickenham to face England, Feb 22nd at 4. England have good side, while they lack in out-and-out ability, they’re good at making a little go a long way. England don’t have the best players in the world, but they’re good at playing as a team.

They do have some good players though. While Owen Farrell was understudy to Jonny Sexton on the Lions tour he would have got great experience, also they have a very good captain in Chris Robshaw, who was unlucky to miss out on the Lions.

Geoff Parling was a star of the Lions’ series, as was the Young’s brothers. Mako Vunipola and Alex Cobrisiero came away from the tour as 2 of the best props around. Alex Goode is developing into a great player at full-back.

1 problem which may affect the English player is the row between the English clubs and the rest of European rugby. The RFU have pretty much stayed out of the whole controversy (it’s speculated that the RFU want to stay on the good side of the clubs as they’ll need their support when England host the Rugby World Cup in 2015), still the on-going problems, with no end in sight, can’t be good for player morale.

While Ireland have the better players, England have the better record. Ireland can beat the English, as long as they’re at the top of their game.

ITALY There’s another break before Ireland host Italy on 8th March at 2.30. Italy will have already faced Wales, England and France so they may not be at their best when they face us. Ireland put in a poor performance against the Italians last year, they need to make up for it this year.

FRANCE Ireland’s final game is against France, in Paris on the Ides (15th) of March, at 5, the final game of the 2014 6 Nations. France are the most unpredictable team in all of rugby. In the 2011 World Cup, they were 1 of the poorest team in the tournament and still managed to make it to the final and came within a hairs-breadth of winning the Cup.

Both countries performances up ’til the match will bear some outcome on the game. If either team is going for the trophy by then it should increase their performance. This match has resulted in a draw the last 2 times the countries have faced off.

Again the match is too close to call and depends a lot on France. On their best day they could beat anyone and may very well come away from the tournament as out-right winners. Hopefully, Sexton’s insider knowledge of the French teams will come in handy.
While another Grand Slam may be too much to hope for, Ireland should do better than they have done in recent years. While the top spot is seen as a 3-horse race between Wales, France and England, Ireland have the ability to come 2nd in the tournament.

FYI, Paddy Power (they didn’t seem to know anything about Cillian possibly playing Roy Keane. I don’t know if my putting on a bet would qualify as insider trading) have listed the following odds for the 6 Nations:

On winning the CHAMPIONSHIP:

Wales 9/4

England 9/4

France 5/2

Ireland 11/2

Scotland 40/1 (not bad odds)

Italy 200/1

On winning the GRAND SLAM (meaning you’ve won all the matches):

FRANCE, ENGLAND and WALES 6/1 each

IRELAND 12/1

SCOTLAND 125/1 (may be worth a euro or 2)

ITALY 425/1

On a last note, my first hope for the 6 Nations is that Ireland do well. My 2nd hope is that it is a great tournament, showcasing the best European rugby has to offer. With the World Cup coming up in 2015, it’s important that Northern Hemisphere rugby shows how great its rugby can be.

There has always been a gap in quality between the Northern and Hemisphere rugby. It was hoped that that cap would close since rugby went professional but if anything that gap has widened even more.

The current mess with the Heineken can’t have helped the Southern Hemisphere team’s opinion of the game here. We need to show, collectively, that we can match them. We showed that when the Lions beat Australia (though it wasn’t a great Australian side). Also when the Lions almost beat South Africa in 2009. Individually, the countries have fared very poorly.

Apart from England’s World Cup victory in 2003, the gap between the hemispheres has remained the same. The Heineken Cup has shown how good the rugby can be in Europe, the 6 Nations needs to follow suit.

Any thoughts on the tournament?

 

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