This year’s Six Nations is – on paper – set to be the most competitive in years.
Ireland have hit good form, England are unbeaten, and France actually displayed some cohesion during their recent November tests. Scotland are continually improving their quality, Italy can build foundations on the expertise of Conor O’Shea & their recent win over South Africa, while Wales are always a formidable force come February/March.
To add further subplots, it’s the first time bonus points will play a role in the Six Nations and the upcoming British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand adds another element of intrigue. It’s set to be a compelling 7 weeks, and it all gets underway this weekend when Ireland kick-off their campaign against Scotland in Murrayfield.
Ireland are entering this year’s Six Nations campaign in a much better place than they did last year. Buoyed by their November success over New Zealand & Australia, they are a side brimming with confidence and are considered favourites for the Championship by many. Couple that in with Leinster & Munster’s recent form & successes, and you have good grounds for optimism.
2017 represents a favourable fixture list for Joe Schmidt’s side. It’s a year in which they welcome France & England to Dublin, avoiding the intimidating venues of Stade Francais & Twickenham. Trips to Edinburgh, Rome & Cardiff are somewhat less daunting, and have proved more winnable venues in recent years. Throw in variable factors such as injury lists & Warren Gatland’s absence, and the tournament seems like it’s coming at the right time for Ireland – in truth, anything other than a top 2 finish would be seen as a disappointment.
As a sporting nation, we love nothing more than getting carried away with ourselves, but a Grand Slam is more than just a wistful thought this year – it’s a realistic aim, and goal.
Cotter’s Last Stand
Vern Cotter is preparing for his final Six Nations with Scotland, as he is set to return to France’s Top 14 with Montpellier next season. With a storied history between himself & Joe Schmidt, Cotter would love nothing more than causing an upset against his old friend in their final meeting in the international arena.
The former Clermont Auvergne coach has had mixed fortunes with Scotland, and Glasgow’s emergence as a force in the Pro 12 hasn’t translated into success for the national side just yet. But with more strength in depth than they have had in a long time, they are overdue causing an upset in a strong Six Nations campaign. With Ireland & Wales both traveling to Murrayfield this year, they are two scalps to target.
As an opener, Scotland at home is a difficult fixture. The team’s Glasgow stars will be keen to get one over on their Munster rivals after three painful losses this season, while their dogged style will disrupt any Irish momentum, rhythm or cohesiveness. It’ll be a tough game and a tight affair with an extremely well drilled and motivated Scottish side.
Schmidt’s Selection Choices
It looked like the Irish coach would have a few selection headaches ahead of this weekend, but the latest injury updates coming out of the squad appears to have made decisions a lot more straightforward. Johnny Sexton & Peter O’Mahony are both ruled out, while Andrew Trimble is also doubtful with a groin injury. On the other hand, Sean O’Brien & Keith Earls have trained this week and both appear available for selection. It leaves Schmidt’s likely starting XV looking as below, with few contentious positions.
Devin Toner is a sure fire start at 4, but Iain Henderson/Donnacha Ryan both represent viable partners for the second-row. Henderson was first choice up until injury, but after returning to fitness he has seen more time on the flank for a stagnant Ulster. Donnacha Ryan is having a standout season for Munster however, and deserves a start on merit. He could be just the nuisance Ireland need in the pack, with Henderson playing the impact sub role before working himself into form, and a starting role for the later stages of the tournament.
The backline picks itself with Sexton, Payne & Trimble all unavailable. Zebo will have been pushing hard for that 15 jersey, but that’s a selection dilemma we don’t have to worry about at the moment. Jackson gets another chance to lead the line at fly half, and the Ulster 10 has impressed enough with Ireland to be trusted with steering his backs effectively for 80 minutes. Garry Ringrose also gets the opportunity for his first Six Nations start in the 13 shirt, continuing to build on a promising relationship with Leinster teammate Robbie Henshaw.
Schmidt’s bench selection is that little bit more unclear however. Niall Scannell & James Tracy are both vying for the spot usually reserved by Sean Cronin, while Ian Keatley & Rory Scannell are the two contenders for the 22 jersey. Scannell is uncapped and plays most of his rugby at inside centre, while Keatley hasn’t been playing regular rugby for Munster this year. Choice is limited with the recently capped Joey Carbery also injured, and Madigan out of the loop in Bordeaux, so Schmidt will have to opt for Scannell’s form Vs. Keatley’s positional experience despite neither starting 10 for Munster regularly this season.
With uncertainty over Paddy Jackson’s back-up, Kieran Marmion is likely to continue his role as Conor Murray’s understudy while Tiernan O’Halloran offers a great deal of versatility from the bench & should be a good fit for the utility back spot.
Murray has long been a key component of Joe Schmidt’s Ireland, but it’s now arguable that he is the key component. With Luke McGrath/Kieran Marmion inexperienced at this level & Johnny Sexton unavailable, Murray is irreplaceable in the team. He has gone from strength to strength over the last number of seasons, and plays a pivotal role in how Ireland operate under Schmidt – he sets the tempo, directs play, and has formed a formidable half-back combination with Sexton.
A stellar performance in Chicago was a healthy reminder of Murray’s class to anyone who may have doubted it, as he put in his best performance for Ireland in a dominant display. He’s backed that up over the course of Munster’s resurgent season, and is amongst the finest scrum halves in the world at the moment. At a time when Ireland lose their ‘general’ in Johnny Sexton, Murray is well able to step up & shoulder some extra responsibility as Paddy Jackson steps into the starting role.
After a series of bruising encounters with Glasgow already this season, Murray will be no stranger to some rough treatment from Scotland’s pack. Targeting his standing leg as he attempts a clearance is quite a violent cheap shot, but we can be sure there will also be some more subtle attempts to put Murray off his game. It’s something that Stander, Heaslip & O’Brien will have to be aware off, offering their key player more protection as he will undoubtedly be targeted again.
Ireland Victory Not Guaranteed
Scotland could very well prove to be one of Ireland’s toughest games in this campaign. They’ll be hugely motivated and first up, they have everything to play for. Any rustiness on Ireland’s behalf could be punished, and it won’t be a pretty game. As mentioned, Cotter & Schmidt know each other quite well so will be aware of each other’s strengths/weaknesses, and areas to target.
The Scottish set-piece will be strong, and Ireland will need their lineout and scrum to be on top form to give Murray & Jackson a platform for to work with. Johnny Gray & Devin Toner will contest each other heavily in the air, while Furlong & McGrath should provide parity at the coalface. Either way, an intense physical battle awaits Rory Best’s pack and it’ll be a long 80 minute effort from both sets of forwards.
Finn Russell, Tommy Seymour & Stuart Hogg are amongst a young & exciting Scottish backline, so it’ll be interesting to see how they fare against the likes of Ringrose, Henshaw & Zebo. No doubt some of them will team up this summer in New Zealand, but for now, they’ll be looking to put one over on their rival. Both sets of backs can do incredible damage if given clean ball, so it makes the forward battle and Murray/Laidlaw’s roles even more important.
A loss would derail Ireland’s Grand Slam aspirations before they even get off the ground, but they should score a win in an intense, fiery and physical encounter.