I mean, it’s said every year, but this truly is shaping up to be one of the most competitive Six Nations ever seen. Four of the six teams have had plenty of reason to be optimistic in the last 6 months or so, whilst Wales and Italy have had a steady time at least, if not spectacular. Most importantly, all six of them have big, pressure intensive wins under their belts recently and are perfectly fired up. Oh, and did I mention the addition of bonus points to the competition this year? Bring it on!
Ireland are rightly installed as second favourites after an extremely solid November but that shadow still hangs over the side at 10. Whilst I understand that the fitness of Jonathan Sexton will always be a talking point in Irish rugby though, why is it still the death knoll of doom when he sits out a game? Paddy Jackson has more than proved himself last summer in South Africa and we even threw Joey Carbery straight from the classroom into one of the most historic games in Irish rugby where he more than held his own. The fact is that we are now dealing with just over 3 years of the Schmidt effect, the very same thing that was instrumental in making Sexton what he is today, and this burning-building madness we all get struck down by when he tweaks a hammy or gets a tight calf has got to calm down!
We have finally reached a point in Irish rugby where we can at least strive for parity with our first and second choices in each position across the squad. I’m unfortunate enough to still vividly remember Twickenham 2012, when the scrum turned into an absolute horror show and worse still in 2013 when the final weekend saw Peter O’Mahony on the wing against Italy. Fair enough, that second one was just blow after blow of bad luck in the injury department; but cast your mind back to November last year. Final game of the series, against a resurgent Australian side, with a second choice scrum half on the wing and a 21 year old out half getting his third cap in fullback, somehow this Ireland team held out. Obviously nobody would ever want a repeat of the stitched together team Ireland finished that game with, but the proof is there that the belief in this squad surpasses anything seen before. Specialist positions will always be as vital as they are, but the Australia fixture proved that the systems and processes in place run through the entire squad and as long as they stay in sync, this generation of players will take any opponent on with force and smarts by the bucketful.
With the team announcement now made there’s not really all that many surprises. Second row was definitely a tough call, with Donnacha Ryan’s niggling injury worry eventually paving the way for Iain Henderson to take the jersey. Henderson won this time but expect some interchangeability in this position throughout the tournament, injury woes or not. Andrew Trimble would likely have been guaranteed the 14 jersey were he fit but it is great to see Simon Zebo and Keith Earls grace the touchlines given the fine form both have shown over the last 12 months. Many eyes of course will be on the centre and the promise that Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw bring; once their provincial form carries over and escalates to the international stage. Ireland seemed to be in dire straits with the joint retirements of Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll. The Payne/Henshaw alliance looked steady early on, but with Ringrose in the mix these two young flyers could be the future of the Irish midfield. Henshaw has been a crucial try scorer against England in the 2015 tournament as well as scoring that try in Chicago to put the All Blacks to bed once and for all. Ringrose did similar against Australia a few weeks later and there’s more than a shade of the aforementioned O’Driscoll in that predatory run of his.
But what of the opponents? Scotland have managed only three wins against Ireland in over a dozen recent meetings, two in the Six Nations, and of those two only the 2010 loss could really be chalked up to a superior Scotland. But more recently, Scotland nearly single handedly denied Ireland the championship in 2015 were it not for the absolutely freakish last gasp tackle from Jamie Heaslip on Stuart Hogg. They usually find themselves on the losing side, but the Scots tend to score absolute humdingers against Ireland and in the last 2 years they have only advanced. In the shape of Josh Strauss and the Gray brothers Scotland have built a great deal of talismanic brute force into their pack, and out back they are never short of slippery speedsters. Hogg is arguably one of the finest fullbacks in the game at the moment whilst Finn Russell just continues to grow in the role at outhalf. That said, for all the hoopla being made over Glasgow’s progress (and it is deserved hoopla) this year, you need look no further than their recent game against Munster in the Champions Cup. Munster were trailing until a yellow card for Hogg and some sublime work from the Munster backline gave them a slim lead. Glasgow fought tooth and nail, got themselves in prime position but bottled the end game. Russell had his moment to step up for the drop goal, arguably twice, but they weren’t able to grab the game by the scruff of its neck. If you want to look for dividing factors between these two sides, you need look no further. Scotland, for all the progress they have made recently, still don’t have a proper grasp on their closing methods. Take a look at Australia in November, where they were just shading dominance over the Wallabies all throughout the game but couldn’t keep the intensity and close out their lead. This may have something to do with their bench options still being a little marginal also.
To help dampen some of this unusual optimism surrounding Ireland’s Six Nations opener, I will say that this will likely be one of the most hotly contested games between these two sides, certainly in recent history anyway. If one single thing can sway it though it will be that Ireland simply expect to win. Not through arrogance or hubris but Ireland have simply excelled in overcoming obstacles of late. Consistency, or lack thereof, has still somewhat plagued them but that is something they will look to set right in this Six Nations, starting tomorrow in Murrayfield.