If that seems like an obvious title well, it is. But for the second time in the last five years Ireland are defending champions of the Six Nations title and there’s a big difference this time around – World Cup 2015. No, we’re not going to harp on about the world cup and ignore the Six Nations as some can be found to do. But it’s there, for all teams in this competition, momentum is key and it’s season long momentum that is at stake in 2015.
Ireland open their account with a visit to Rome, the site of some worry in recent years. In 2013 Italy finally crossed Ireland off the Six Nations win list with a well deserved intense victory whilst two years before that Ronan O’Gara spared all the blushes with a last ditch drop goal putting the Azzurri away. Not for one second would it be correct that the teams of those years anyway resemble Ireland 2.0 of the last 18 months but cautionary tales they are all the same.
Joe Schmidt has injuries to contend with, in a similar vein to his English counterpart Stuart Lancaster. It’s not that thy are detrimental injuries that Ireland can’t cater for rather, like England, there is a strong air of favourites heading in Ireland’s direction and that added pressure makes each of his selections that more open to scrutiny. Ian Keatley at 10 is the obvious contender for analysis. He has 3 caps for Ireland and only 1 under Schmidt. His rival, Ian Madigan, on the other hand has featured as back up out half for nearly all of Schmidt’s tenure and was first choice against Georgia which Keatley played second fiddle for. Breaking it down to the most simple explanation; Schmidt is counteracting the loss of Jamie Heaslip and his experience by installing a week in/week out half back pairing in Keatley and Conor Murray. Not much more to it than that, though Madigan’s lack of game time at 10 isn’t helping his case for sure. The rest of the team carries mild risk and untested associations but rest assured these two will be most heavily under the microscope.
For Italy many familiar faces appear in the starting fifteen and similarly they will find many eyes on their out half. Kelly Haimona has a pressure on his shoulders many have failed to conquer in the past – that Italy could achieve great things with a functioning out half. Once upon a time Italy had the pack but rarely the backs to finish. In the last decade the speedsters have held their hands up but still the link from the forwards to them faltered. Can the Kiwi turn their fortunes around? Thus far he has been solid if not much more but there’s certainly a spark to him that could be the difference in Italy reversing their form of the last year. There is also the fact that even though in Ireland the mantra is In Joe We Trust, Italy still see a lot of inexperience in front of them ahead of Saturday’s game. Jordi Murphy, Jack McGrath, Ian Keatley, Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne are all individuals that the Azzurri will see as being exploitable.
Ireland will likely run out winners, sure enough the Italians will tick the cliché and be at their most physical. Seeing as this tournament is extremely likely to once again be settled on points difference, facing Italy at home in round one will work against Ireland, though that bench could make the difference for them in terms of shutting them out in the final quarter. It’s back folks, and for once the optimism is warranted.
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