We are currently in the middle of my favourite week of the sporting year. The run up to the opening of the 6 Nations 2017 is in full swing. Everyone is talking about permutations and combinations and when Saturday comes, it will be an explosion of rugby goodness.
Ireland go into this competition as near favourites again. A strong June and November has shown a big improvement on last year and along with a few defence coach it is all coming up milhouse for Joe Schmidt.
Coming into the opening weekend the Irish provinces have been performing well (Ulster aside). Munster have managed to channel deep horrible grief into a fantastic attitude shift on the pitch, along with a full Thomond park behind them they have become the team to fear in both the league and the cup. As a blue, that last sentence was very hard to type. Leinster have been consistently playing in 3rd gear and sweeping aside most of the team put in front of them. A lot of new faces getting game time, Leo settling into the role, Lancaster adding a strong voice to the team and the players have been performing. There is a lot more to come from the team which is a mouth-watering prospect. Munster appear to be playing at their top level, whereas Leinster look to have more in the tank. Connacht where minutes away from joining the top table in Europe but injuries decimated the most courageous team in the land. If they can be treated better, they will be eating steak with the reds and the blues. Ulster started well, but appear to have fallen off the rugby cliff, nothing is sticking, nothing is working but if they put a streak of wins together that will turn around. Top level players won’t misfire for long.
Domestically things are heating up for the second half of the season.
All of this being brought into the green jersey is great to see. The Ulster lads are delighted to be out of the white jersey for a while and reset themselves into the Ireland jersey. The rest are hoping to bring the form into the Ireland setup.
We open with a trip to Edinburgh to take on a Scotland side who are improving week on week under Cotter. A decent November where they beat Georgia, Argentine and really should have beaten the wallabies, but ended up losing by 1 point. This is a few years too early for Scotland, they have a fairly serious backline and a very good second row, but everywhere else, they are quite a distance behind Ireland. Ireland will have to watch the kicking; anything that goes to Stuart Hogg with any space will be threatened with a score. Outside of that, Scotland don’t really have many viable scoring option. Ireland need to show up, stick to the basics, keep the disciple and take every scoring opportunity. This should be an Ireland win with at least 1 score to spare.
A trip to Italy follows. Again, Italy are improving under Conor O’Shea. Having beaten South Africa they confidence is up. They will put up a sterner challenge than before but they should fold after 50 minutes of pressure and Ireland will have some distance on the scoreboard.
We have France visiting Dublin on 25th Feb. This will be very interesting. Using form, France are just not at the races. They haven’t threatened to compete in the tournament in years. They have been a shambles. This year, there is a management change; they have given the players the week before the tournament off from their club commitments. It appears the French are taking this year’s competition more seriously than before. So will this make a difference? If Ireland prepare for the best French team, then they will win. If they expect the same team as previous years, then the French will cause the upset. Ireland mind-set will be hugely important in this game, if that is right then the team will win and march off to Cardiff with a whiff of a championship in their nostrils.
Wales have been shaky since Gatland left for the lions job. Mentally they looked bad in November, the players just didn’t play. Changing the caption to Wynne- Jones is a good call. He is a warrior and will be hugely important in this game. Ireland will need up up everything for this game, to put points on Wales and win the game will put the marker down for England. This will be close for 70 minutes, but I think Ireland come out on top by 3-5 points.
And then we get to the final day of the tournament. The day after St Patricks day, England come to Dublin. An England team unbeaten in 2016, who scared everyone in that season and who have been fairly classy in their play. Assuming that they have managed their injuries and come in with wins as Ireland have, this is for all the marbles. A grand slam/championship will be on the line. We know what England will do. They are big, mean and tough players with a silky backline. The game plan won’t have changed much since last year. It is up to Ireland to play the game to beat them. A lot of set piece, top discipline and savage defence will keep Ireland in the game. Some magic will be needed from the midfield to unlock England. This will be the game where Henshaw and Ringrose become saints in Ireland. Around the hour mark they will unlock the England defence, just after the first substitutes are made. Ireland will press on and win the championship.
Below is my team selection for the opening match (as at 31/01/2017 – Sexton ruled out 13:40)
- Rory Best ©
Subs: Dillane, Healy, Bealham, Conan, Cerbery, Keatley (should be Madigan), Trimble, AN other
As usual, @nkeegan for debate and derision.