It’s that time of the year again when watching three international contests over a weekend is an absolute pleasure, writes Donal Lenihan.
The Six Nations championship, with all its history, tradition, pomp, and colour conjures up so many memories from your earliest days watching those games on television and for those of us fortunate to have sampled the fare at the coal face, the sheer exhilaration that came with winning, the utter devastation of a shattering defeat.
This great tournament has something for everyone and this season’s fare, which kicks off in Murrayfield when Scotland host Ireland on Saturday afternoon, promises to be one of the very best.
It helps Ireland enter the fare with genuine aspirations of winning and nobody, least of all the bookies who are seldom wrong, can deny Ireland’s credentials for outright success, which would mark a third championship in Joe Schmidt’s fourth season at the helm. That would be unprecedented for an Irish coach, but then Schmidt and success go hand in hand.
Not only is the New Zealander the best international coach this country has ever had but he is also one of the main reasons why Ireland face into this tournament with such high hopes.
Schmidt makes good players better and transforms great players into inspirational figures. He is the reason why Ireland won a test in South Africa against the Springboks for the first time last June and why we finally put to bed a 111-year history of failure against the All Blacks.
The big question now is, can he work his magic once again? I see no reason why he can’t. In the first instance it helps we have a really good squad, the majority of whom are currently on top of their game, fit, and healthy for battle.
Our main rivals for the championship, England, can’t say that and Eddie Jones faces an injury crisis at present with the Vunipola brothers Maka and Billy, former captain Chris Robshaw, James Haskell and leading second row George Kruis all set to miss some or all of the championship. That injury crisis in the back row could result in Jones switching the most exciting and athletically gifted forward in the competition, Maro Itoje, from the second row onto the blind side of the scrum in a precursor to where he might yet end up in Lions colours in New Zealand. That potential move could provide Itoje with an even bigger opportunity to influence the outcome of games and, should it transpire for even some of the games, will certainly be watched with interest by Warren Gatland.
Up to yesterday it looked as if Schmidt had a full deck to choose from with the announcement on Monday Johnny Sexton, Keith Earls and Sean O’Brien would be fit and available for selection.
Unfortunately Sexton’s withdrawal, with further tightness in his calf, is a blow but not insurmountable as Paddy Jackson showed in South Africa last summer.
Right now Irish rugby is the envy of many of our greatest rivals but, as Schmidt found out to his cost at the World Cup two seasons ago, all that can change overnight with the loss of key personnel. That said, Ireland coped with some pretty seismic injuries over the last six months and still prevailed against the likes of South Africa and Australia.
What has helped immeasurably on that front is the emergence of some really talented young players since that disappointing 2015 World Cup defeat to Argentina. Garry Ringrose, Joey Carbery, Ultan Dillane, Tadhg Furlong, CJ Stander, Finley Bealham, and Josh Van Der Flier are set to have a lasting impact on Irish rugby for a long time to come and of that grouping only Furlong featured at the last World Cup, as back-up to Mike Ross. That is an incredible influx of talent over a comparatively short period of time.
The fact this season’s championship also provides the springboard for Lions selection adds even more spice as every individual handed a role by his country will harbour the individual goal of making that Lions selection. It also adds further fuel to the debates in the pubs and clubs of Ireland as every amateur pundit and dedicated fan tinker with their own individual touring parties on a weekly basis.
What makes the tournament even more enthralling is the prospect that Scotland, on the back of Glasgow’s recent successes, finally appear set to make a telling impact and will definitely put it up to Ireland in that opening game.
Immediately following Ireland’s opening foray in Edinburgh, England and France go to battle in Twickenham in a contest that promises to reveal much. Do England have the reserves in strength and depth to overcome that calamitous injury list up front? Can France, whose recent Six Nations form has been appalling by their historic standards, finally rise from the ashes of a faltering domestic league to become a serious player in the tournament once again?
There were signs during their recent autumn campaign of a return to a more traditional running style under Guy Noves but the loss of the gifted Clermont centre Wesley Fofana is a huge blow in that respect. Additionally, question marks surround their conditioning and consequently their ability to survive the course in high tempo games. We will be so much wiser about the potential destination of the championship after that game in London. Rugby in Italy has come under the spotlight for all the wrong reasons recently given the horrendous form of Zebre and Treviso on both domestic and European fronts. Yet in the midst of some catastrophic defeats for those clubs, new national coach Conor O’Shea managed to fashion the most famous result in Italian rugby history when his side defeated South Africa in Florence last November.
Can the former Irish international elicit similar results from a squad that must surely be low in confidence after recent club outings over the next few weeks? The one advantage going for O’Shea is Italy open their campaign with two home games against Wales and Ireland, given that traditionally they have been more difficult to master in the opening rounds.
And what of Wales? They are notoriously slow starters in campaigns such as this and therefore somewhat vulnerable travelling to Rome. Rob Howley is once again left minding the house in the Lions enforced absence of Warren Gatland and needs to get his selection right from the outset.
Will it be Justin Tipuric or Sam Warburton at open side, Scott Williams or Jamie Roberts in midfield?
England and Ireland have to travel to Cardiff so a winning start in Rome opens up all kinds of possibilities for a Welsh side that have always managed to park the indifferent form of their regional sides in Europe to remain serious contenders for Six Nations honours.
The introduction of the bonus point system for the first time also offers something different and will add to the intrigue of the competition even if the statisticians have already been at pains to point out that, when applying the new system retrospectively, only once would it have altered the eventual winner in the last four championships.
I think that is somewhat misleading however in the way coaches approach the final quarter of games is now going to change appreciably. Up to this if the result was safe, they were inclined to get their best players off the pitch with 15 minutes to go with a view to the next game.
Now they will only attempt that if the four try bonus is in the bag.
Right now it’s all to play for across the board and hopefully the stories surrounding the opening weekend will have nothing to do with increased sanctions surrounding the tackle.
Now that might be too much to hope for. We will wait and see.
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