It’s the biggest competition in the European calendar yet it finishes two months before the season is over. Teams play an uneven amount of matches home and away. One of the trophies on offer can only be won by two-thirds of the sides competing.
The RBS Six Nations Championship is perfectly imperfect, yet that’s why we love it.
My first ever column for SportsNewsIreland was a preview for Wales v Ireland last March, and in many ways our clashes with our Celtic cousins have highlighted everything that is wrong in the Irish game over the past twelve months.
Not that it has been all bad in that time of course…there were the small matters of crushing England to prevent their Grand Slam, major trophies for two Irish provinces plus winning a World Cup pool that included the Tri-Nations champions to savour, but that was all sandwiched in between two defeats to the Welsh that just can’t be shaken from the memory, particularly the last one in Wellington.
But fate, also known as the fixture list, has granted this Irish squad a shot at redemption in their very next Test outing, and Warren Gatland’s men will no doubt be well aware that a third victory over their rivals in less than a year will be extremely hard to come by.
Many, myself included, were unimpressed by the announcement of Declan Kidney’s squad last week because it seemed to do little to look ahead to the future. Even though there’s a new cap on the bench in the form of Peter O’Mahony, you wonder how much the 22 would differ from Wellington if Messrs O’Driscoll & Leamy were available.
Yet whatever we may think about the selections, as fans we must put those feelings aside, don our green jerseys, and cheer the boys on regardless on Sunday afternoon, and what a battle it promises to be.
Normally the talk around the Irish starting XV fixates on whether it should be Ronan O’Gara or Jonathan Sexton starting at out-half, but though the Leinster man got the nod, the real focus was on the choice of Keith Earls to fill O’Driscoll’s formidable boots at 13.
Sadly for Earls, due to the more pressing matter of family commitments the Munster man won’t be able to start, meaning that Fergus McFadden lines out in his place.
While I would have every confidence with McFadden in an attacking sense, it’s when the Welsh centre pairing of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies run at him that I would have my biggest concerns.
Still…as it happens, the mastermind behind our overall defensive success, Les Kiss, is now also our backs coach having assumed Alan Gaffney’s duties, and I’d have every confidence in his ability to get them ready for action come Sunday.
Going back to outhalf, even without my Leinster bias I’d still have to say Sexton is the right call to start as he offers the better opportunity of keeping the Welsh defence guessing throughout, and as O’Gara’s Heineken heroics this season have proved, there’s no better man to come in an get your team a score should the need arise at the eleventh hour.
Elsewhere in the backline we have a powerful back-three combination, all in good form for their clubs. Rob Kearney and Andrew Trimble in particular have gotten vital tries for their provinces of late and of course we all know that Tommy Bowe has come good against the Welsh before despite the fact he plays his club rugby there!
Of course the visitors have a formidable lineup themselves…coach Gatland waited until the last possible moment to wait on supposed injuries in his squad but in the end the only big omissions seem to be in their pack, with Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees & Dan Lydiate all forced to sit it out.
Still, they’re not exactly short of replacements and the likes of Ryan Jones & Huw Bennet coming in to replace them have plenty of experience to add to the talents of skipper and tenacious Number 7 Sam Warburton.
Luckily Ireland have close to their best pack on the field…some feel Donncha Ryan’s form for Munster should have him starting but you certainly can’t question the big-match experience O’Callaghan brings to the table. Up front, Rory Best has made the number 2 jersey his own while the back row of Ferris, O’Brien and Heaslip would be envied by any Test nation.
But there’s one player I’ve yet to mention in this article and I believe he will be our biggest key to success. All this talk about who plays at 10 or 13 is fine, but you just can’t measure the immense contribution Paul O’Connell brings to his side whatever the colour of his jersey. I believe Sunday’s contest will be hard-fought and tight throughout, but he is the man who will not only lead by example but also inspire those around him to up their game.
Which of course leads me to my predictions for this weekend, in Saturday’s matches, I’m fully expecting France to be way too strong for the Italians, I’d even go so far as to say you could bet on them beating whatever spread the bookies will be offering.
As for Murrayfield, I’m going for a Scottish victory. Something about the English set-up just doesn’t sit right with me. Despite all that has been going on behind the scenes, I’m not sensing that everyone is fully behind Stuart Lancaster, not even his employers, and with so many new combinations on show, I reckon the score will stay low which will suit Andy Robinson & Dan Parks down to the ground.
Which of course leaves the “big one” on Sunday, and as I have already hinted, I’m going for a home win. I’m expecting Ireland to bring the 80-minutes of focus they showed beating England last March, leaving the 80-minutes of sluggishness they showed in Wellington back Down Under where it belongs.
It definitely promises to be a spectacular opening to this year’s championship whatever happens – be sure and enjoy the action wherever you are and I’ll be back here next week to see if the boys in green can get an elusive victory in Paris. JLP
You can read my blog at http://www.harpinonrugby.net/