Six Nations Preview: Ireland

Six_Nations_Championship.svgAS REIGNING Six Nations Champions, and the only northern hemisphere team to experience an unbeaten Autumn Series, Joe Schmidt’s men are undoubtedly the favourites, on paper, for this year’s tournament. Their only defeat in the previous 12 months was in England this time last year, and it’s the first year in several that only one Irish province has qualified for the European Cup Quarter Finals, Leinster.

This will be the first Six Nations, since Italy were introduced as the sixth nation in 2000, when former Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll will not be able to participate. The Dubliner retired from the game last year after claiming not only a historic Irish win in Paris but also the Championship to boot. Joe Schmidt’s conundrum since then has been who to fill that famous emerald number 13 shirt. No-one will truly be able to fill it as O’Driscoll did, reinventing the outside centre position, with his sharp line-breaks, revolutionary turnovers in rucks and even a couple of drop goals too; however some contenders have emerged. During the two wins in Argentina over the summer, Darren Cave and Fergus McFadden were given the chance, Cave had another chance over Georgia in November whilst Jared Payne and young Connacht centre Robbie Henshaw wore it over the Springboks and Australia. This Six Nations could see one of them truly claim the shirt ahead of the Rugby World Cup in early Autumn.

Ireland’s back three looks settled with Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe, but the left-wing berth is up for grabs, as are the half-backs with Connor Murray and Jonny Sexton to a certain extent. Despite this, Sexton has faced a 12-week lay-off following numerous concussions, both in training and matches and will not feature until next week’s clash with France at the earliest. Ian Keatley is knocking on the door, but Ian Madigan proved his capabilities for the Wolfhounds, and is the current number two. Sean O’Brien is now fit, and played 52 minutes in the Wolfounds fixture at Musgrave Park last weekend and could make up a back-row with his Leinster team-mate Jamie Heaslip and Munster captain Peter O’Mahony. Ireland will be lead by Paul O’Connell in the row alongside giant Devin Toner, with the front row still up for grabs as Cian Healy is racing to get fit with Jack McGrath his most likely deputee, Rory Best and Sean Cronin go head t0 head for the hooker berth but Mike Ross should lock-in at tight-head prop despite pressure from Marty Moore and New-Zealand born 33 year-old Nathan White.

Ireland had an impressive Autumn Series, with wins against Australia and South Africa standing out. Jonny Sexton proving his French salary right, by running the show in the AVIVA for both the victories, and the grunting Irish set of forwards dominating with their rolling mauls, evolving somewhat upon the mid to late-2000s Munster manner of winning games. In the backs they have natural finishers, Simon Zebo has flair to fill a Ballroom, Tommy Bowe is consistent throughout, whilst Luke Fitzgerald, Craig Gilroy and Dave Kearney are also viable options. Keith Earls could be a victim of his own versatility (could we call it the James Hook-syndrome?) and could fill any position from right wing to full-back, but seems focused on the centres. Welsh born Rhys Ruddock is a consistent performer for Leinster whilst Chris Henry has been patient in waiting for a call -up whilst Iain Henderson and Dan Tuohy would not look out of place on the international stage. Joe Schmidt has enough choice, but maybe too much choice is sometimes a bad thing.

Ireland’s performance this Spring will reflect Racing-Metro’s Jonny Sexton’s performance. He hasn’t played any rugby since late November and his last outing for his club side was on November the 1st. There is no doubting Sexton’s ability to control a game; Connor Murray and himself seem to bring the best out of each other. Joe Schmidt has worked a lot with Sexton, and probably knows him best as a player (being a former Leinster coach) so he’s best placed to decide on J10’s fitness and form. This could be Paul O’Connell’s final Six Nations with 96 caps to his name at the start of the Championship. He has been a mainstay for Ireland and his province Munster for over 12 years, and he’ll know the importance of a good Six Nations in a World Cup year looking to claim a second Championship on the trot, or even a Grand Slam. A return to Rome, where Ireland lost for the first time ever two years ago, is up first. And a win is there for the taking, even without Sexton at out-half, then they have two of their hardest fixtures but at home, as they welcome les Bleus then Stuart Lancaster’s unpredictable Chariot roll-up to Dublin before traveling to Cardiff and then a final trip to Murrayfield. By mid-March we will know whether those two wins over Australia and South Africa were just a flash in the white pudding and potato farls filled pan, or whether to truly consider Ireland not as just Six Nations winners but also World Cup contenders. It’s a big year ahead, but start as you mean to go on.

Young Player to look out for: Kiearan Marmion

Star Player: Jonathan Sexton

Most tries Six Nations 2015: Rob Kearney