Well, the 2014 6 Nations kicks off over the next 2 days and there’s quite an exciting array of matches to start with. Firstly, Wales host tournament underdogs, Italy at 2.30 on Saturday. Later that day, England travel away to face France at 5. And on Sunday, Scotland come to the Aviva for 3 o’clock.
These matches provide Ireland a great chance to gauge the ability of their upcoming opponents from q distance, including the 3 tournament favourites (Wales, England and France). Also, of course, Ireland can test their own ability, against a strong team but a team they should overcome.
Joe Schmidt has picked a strong team for his 1st 6 Nations game. There are only 3 changes from the team that put in that heroic performance against New Zealand last November. Andrew Trimble, Luke Marshall and Chris Henry are rewarded for their great performances for Ulster.
With the recent injury to Luke Fitzgerald (and the dropping of Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy) Andrew Trimble takes his place on the wing. He’s a very strong runner, though not nearly as inventive as some of the other wings.
Luke Marshall comes in for Gordon D’Arcy at 12 (D’Arcy had a brilliant game against the All Blacks, but he’s out of the squad entirely for this game), while Chris Henry takes the place of the injured Sean O’Brien. Henry has a chance to really make a name for himself at open-side, especially as Scotland won’t be fielding a specialist no.7 themselves.
Elsewhere, Brian O’Driscoll makes his 129th appearance for Ireland (becoming the country’s most capped player) and his last appearance against Scotland. And Rob Kearney makes his 50th appearance for the country.
David Kearney is quickly establishing himself as a mainstay in the team. As far as replacements; Ireland don’t have much strength in the forwards, apart from Cronin. Ian Madigan suffers for his lack of game time for Leinster, with Paddy Jackson as the 2nd choice no.10. Fergus McFadden gets a place on the bench for his greater versatility.
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Brian O’Driscoll, 12 Luke Marshall, 11 Dave Kearney, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 Paul O’Connell (c), 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Martin Moore, 19 Dan Tuohy, 20 Tommy O’Donnell, 21 Isaac Boss, 22 Paddy Jackson, 23 Fergus McFadden
Scotland have a strong side which can’t be underestimated. Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland, Richie Gray, Ryan Grant and Ross Ford all have Lions experience (Ford toured with the Lions in 2009). Hogg and Maitland are dangerous runners.
Scotland do have a weakness at centre where both players are untested. Duncan Weir at out-half is also a risk. While an exciting player he doesn’t have a reputation for being able to control a game like an out-half should.
Scotland are also without Dan Parks, whose kicking skills helped them to win a few games (including last year’s test against Ireland). Parks, of course, is now helping Connacht to achieve some of their best rugby ever.
A win in this game is crucial for Ireland. To get the campaign started with a bang, for the player’s own confidence and motivation, Ireland need to stuff it to the Scots. Ireland through the game away last year, losing 12-8.
Scotland have only won twice in Ireland since 1997 (in 1998 and 2010) and neither victory was by more than 5 points. Also, Scotland have a very poor record away from home in the 6 Nations (their only away win in 16 attempts was that 2010 game against Ireland). While, Ireland haven’t lost their opening 6 Nations game in 9 years.
Only lack of faith should stand between Ireland and a good victory. Irish teams have always struggled in games where they are the favourites. The team needs to start playing to their potential and believing in themselves, if they are to achieve great things.
WALES V ITALY
Wales have a great start to the 6 Nations, where they welcome Italy to the Millennium Stadium. The Welsh team is going for an historic 3rd 6 Nations title in a row (no team has managed 3 straight titles).
While the Italian team have improved in recent years, the Welsh should dominate them easily. Especially as 11 of the Welsh team played in the test series for the Lions against Australia last summer. Not only that but they also have 2013 Lions captain Sam Warburton on the bench (who’s recovering from injury) and James Hook, who toured with the Lions in 2009.
Wales are clear favourites to win this game comfortably and would be extremely embarrassed if they didn’t (no offence to Italy). Wales are going through some major problems with the game at home but they should have the mental control to put that to the side for the moment and concentrate on winning a 3rd 6 Nations title.
FRANCE V ENGLAND
This is the big game of the weekend. Both teams are favourites to win the whole tournament and a loss in this game will derail the chances of 1 of them. France are without their captain, Thierry Dusautoir, who’s a big loss for them.
Both teams have a number of new faces. The results have been spread evenly between the teams over the last few years, though England have won the last two matches between the sides. France are stronger at centre, while England have the better pack.
England Captain, Chris Robshaw was unlucky to miss out on Lions selection and will want to show his detractors how good he is. Owen Farrell will have learned a lot from his Lions experience and been understudy to Jonny Sexton, probably the best out-half in Europe at the moment (at international level anyway).
England have done well in the 6 Nations in the last few years, while France have been dire (especially last year where they got the wooden spoon). England will want to keep their momentum going while France will be looking to make up for past embarrassments.
France can be more exciting, but England have proven that 10-man rugby can get the job done. The game isn’t likely to be a spectacle but should be quite gripping. There probably won’t be a big score in this match. I think England should just manage to win.
Wales to beat Italy by more than 15 points, England to beat France by less than 8 points, and Ireland to beat Scotland by more than 10 points (please note that I’m not great at predicting outcomes).