The game of rugby union has gone through many changes over the past couple of decades, but whether it has been a championship for four, five or six teams, the tournament we now know as the Six Nations has been and probably always will be the highlight of the European calendar.
And the 2013 version promises to be one of the most closely fought in recent memory, with as many as four teams all setting out with the capability to not only top the table but also to complete the coveted Grand Slam in the process. The margins are bound to be so tight, however, that it is very possible that it will be points difference that decides the destination of the famous trophy.
We also have this year the Lions sub-plot to the tournament, with Warren Gatland certain to be following the series with interest, particularly the two matches at the Millennium Stadium and Twickenham tomorrow, where the bulk of his player pool will be on display.
Friday, February 1, 2013
Under 20′s Six Nations
Wales v Ireland, Parc Eiras, 7:10pm
Mike Ruddock is quietly establishing himself as one of the most successful rugby coaches on the island. Having led the last batch of Under-20s to an impressive fifth-placed finish in last summer’s Junior Championship, his club side Lansdowne proudly sit atop the Ulster Bank League at the halfway stage.
He now must lead his young charges into the 2013 Six Nations campaign, with only new captain Luke McGrath and Ulster’s promising Stuart Olding left over from last season. Tonight they square off with their Welsh couterparts in what promises to be an exciting contest to whet the appetite for the senior fare to come.
Saturday, February 2, 2013
Six Nations Championship
Wales v Ireland, Millennium Stadium, 1:30pm
The competition kicks off with a virtual cup final. As I suggested in my preamble, both these teams will have Triple Crown & Grand Slam aspirations and both will go up in smoke with defeat on the day.
Still, although Ireland are the away team and had a disappointing competition last year, they have every reason to believe they can get the better of a side that has consistently put them to the sword in recent seasons.
Things didn’t get off to the best start for the Irish set-up with the confusion surrounding the naming of Jamie Heaslip as captain followed closely by the announcement of Jonathan Sexton’s move to Paris for next season.
But although Declan Kidney has named some youth to his starting lineup, there are plenty of experienced heads out there who will know to put all that behind them and get on with the task in hand.
So what exactly is the task at hand when it comes to beating the Welsh? Well, things certainly haven’t been rosy for them since their Grand Slam success last season. A succession of defeats, a serious loss of form by their presumptive starting outhalf Rhys Priestland followed by a season-ending injury to the lad, plus the appointment of Gatland to the Lions job have all served to leave them starting virtually from scratch again this season. But in many ways that could be just how the Welsh will want it.
Looking at their starting lineup, you can certainly see several ways with which they can hurt the Irish, not least in their massive line from 11 through 14. We can only assume the majority of their offensive plan will be to create space for the likes of Jamie Roberts and George North to crash through our defences.
But what our own 11-14 combination may concede in stature, it certainly makes back in experience with Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy together yet again in the centre. And with Sexton himself a formidable tackler it certainly won’t be an easy line to crash through.
The most fascinating aspect of these two starting lineups is in the pack. First up we have a front row battle with everyone involved in the mix for Lions selection. In Mike Ross, Ireland has our key to success in this year’s competition. He is our only test standard tight-head and seeing how it is unlikely he will be able to play a full 80 minutes for all five matches, we will need to make the most hay when he is on the pitch.
But it is behind the front row where this particular battle should be won or lost. It could be said that both sides are at sixes and sevens with their selections!
In the second row, only Ian Evans on the Welsh side is a specialist lock forward. His partner, débutante Andrew Coombes, can also play six as can both the Irish pairing of Donncha Ryan and Mike McCarthy. Also on the Irish team Sean O’Brien, himself a renowned 6 for Leinster, himself has the 7 jersey.
When you factor in the fact Jamie Heaslip has been known to concentrate more on clearing out rucks and less on carrying, ie a 7 role, in recent times, plus of course the undoubted abilities of Warbuton and Faletau on the Welsh side, you have all the making of a battle royale at the breakdown, and referee Romain Poite will certainly have his work cut out to make sure the Laws of the Game will be adhered to!
If Ireland can get themselves a plentiful supply of quick ball (secure lineout on our own throw will also be key), it will be down to an exciting looking back three of Gilroy, Zebo and Kearney (should he be fit) to get into positions for Sexton to put them in to space.
We certainly have the ability to come out on top, and in each of our defeats to Wales of late we can point to our own failings as to why we didn’t. So despite all the finer points I have outlined above, what I feel we need more than anything else is something that you can’t draw on a blackboard or look for in a DVD session. We need the team to keep their head in the game for the full 80 minutes, forgetting the four other matches to come in the competition, and once we’re deep into the match, focus on dealing with what’s in front of the rather than trying to stick to complex sets of strategies.
Should we find the right amount of leadership in the right areas on the day, I feel we just about have what it takes to get the job done, so I’m going for an Irish victory at 6/5 with Boylesports.com
England v Scotland, Twickenham, 4pm
I believe the English have been let off lightly by the general rugby media in the build up to this year’s tournament. By rights, they should be the clear favourites for the championship.
This time last season Stuart Lancaster was virtually given a free reign in his first campaign in charge, and in the end he came out with a more-than-respectable 2nd place with four wins out of five, and since has gone on to go toe-to-toe with the top nations from the southern hemisphere and coming away with many an eye-catching result in the process.
In my view the honeymoon period should be over, and with Wales struggling, France due to go to Twickenham and nothing to fear from the Irish based on their last two meetings, we should be hearing a lot more about England’s chances of success than we are. Well I for one am tipping them to go all the way this year and anything less should be seen as a disappointment the way things are shaping up.
And I say this even though they must go through the first couple of weeks without their game-breaking centre Manu Tuilagi. For me he is merely the icing on the cake of the game they try to play. With the innovative Youngs at 9 plus a solid back row of Wood, Robshaw and Morgan, they look set to give Owen Farrell many penalty-kicking opportunities, ones he takes a lot more often than not.
Not that Scotland should be completely written off from this contest, however. Though I felt Andy Robinson had done a decent job with the squad overall, it was perhaps the right time for him to step aside and with Kiwi import Sean Maitland added to their lineup they certainly have several attacking options around the park, not to mention the fact that they almost always seem to be able to raise their game for the Calcutta Cup contests.
Still, the home side should have more than enough on the day to keep the visitors at bay, and I’m tipping an England win by at least two converted tries.
Sunday, February 3, 2013
Women’s Six Nations Championship
Wales v Ireland, Aberavon, 1:30pm
Best wishes to Fiona Coghlan as she leads the Irish team on another quest for glory this season. They may have been denied a Triple Crown by defeat to England in their final match, but their 2012 campaign was a creditable one as they only narrowly lost to France by one point after a horrendous day’s travelling experience to get to Pau for the fixture. With the two top nations set to come to Dublin and the English resting a large portion of their squad with the sevens in mind, they have every opportunity to build on their success.
Six Nations Championship
Italy v France, Stadio Olimpico, 3pm (Irish time)
I don’t have the Italian lineup at the time of writing, but in many ways the schedule of this year’s Six Nations has given them an ideal opportunity to repeat their historic first victory over France back in 2011.
Coach Phillipe St Andre will be under a lot of pressure back home to improve on their fourth-place finish last season; that is not a return the French rugby public have much tolerance for. And it won’t help for him to have to do without the service of try-scoring machines like Vincent Clerc.
But as often is the case with French sides, when one player falls there is often ample talent to take his place and it can certainly said that Fofana and Fall are well capable to doing damage on the day.
And we could also learn a lot from this contest about the next generation of French talent…Morgan Parra is named to the bench but hopes are high for Maxime Machenaud who dons the 9 jersey. With Frederic Michalak at 10, it’s safe to say that anything is possible from this halfback pairing!
Plus we have the prospect of seeing the exciting young Perpignan lock Romain Taofifenua sprung from the bench at some stage, I have a feeling rugby columnists all over Europe will be practising how to spell his name before long.
When trying to come up with a result for this match, while I can’t rule out an Italian victory by any stretch, and I also don’t think this is going to be France’s year, I still think they are going to start their campaign with a win, though by a seven-point margin they will find disappointing.
That’s it for me! This is to be my last regular column for SportsNews Ireland and I’d like to thank Trevor, Joe and everyone involved for publishing my pieces for the past two years. Be sure and enjoy your Six Nations rugby this weekend, wherever you are. JLP
You’ll find my blog at www.harpinonrugby.net