Video: No reason why Ireland can't aim for the Six Nations title - Conor George
France’s visit to Dublin key clash as wide-open championship gives Kidney’s men real chance
Published 29/01/2013 | 05:00
BEWARE a French team playing with confidence. After the ignominy of last year's fourth place finish, Philippe Saint-Andre will be bidding to flush away any residual negativity when France open their 2013 campaign in Rome on Sunday.
The French coach sacrificed last season in order to properly assess the extent of the damage left by his predecessor Marc Lievremont. New combinations were tried and new players given their opportunity.
The result was only their second placing outside the top three in Six Nations history.
There was, however, method to Saint-Andre's apparent madness. In November he started just 19 players over their three Tests. France won all three games against Australia, Samoa and Argentina.
The man-mountain that is Mathieu Bastareaud has been reborn under Saint-Andre's tutelage and with Freddie Michalak installed as their first-choice pivot, their backline has a more settled look to it than it ever did under Lievremont.
Most critics – well the English ones – believe that the defining match of the championship will be when France travel to Twickenham on February 23, the weekend Ireland are in Murrayfield. For me, the meeting of Ireland and France in Dublin in March has a far more important look to it.
England, as is their wont, have suddenly started to believe they are world-beaters because of their victory over New Zealand and the assertions that Stuart Lancaster was a dead man walking and out of his depth before that game have been swept under the carpet.
Their unofficial anthem 'Sweet Chariot' is audible again and will, predictably, be pumped up to a ridiculous level when they obliterate Scotland in their opening game.
Before dismissing Ireland's chances of upsetting the anointed ones, it is worth considering that since 2000 Ireland have a better win ratio than England.
France top the table with 71.5pc, Ireland are second with a 68.5pc winning ratio, with England on 66.9pc.
Ireland also have the advantage of playing both England and France at home. There is a feel-good factor about the Ireland team too. They have an attacking back three in Rob Kearney, Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy (or Luke Fitzgerald) that will cause most defences trouble.
Jonathan Sexton will feel the pressure to perform as he readies himself for the move to France, which could be to Ireland's benefit as it will improve him as a player.
The competition in the back-row for places ensures those selected will be keen to perform. This can only be to Ireland's advantage.
The one fear, though, from Ireland's perspective is the doubts that surround their efficiency at scrum time – in particular the tighthead position, where there is a dearth of options and talent.
Mike Ross is the incumbent and while he is irreplaceable – if Michael Bent is pressed into service Ireland's chances are goosed – it mustn't be forgotten that the Ireland scrum was in trouble against England last season even before Ross departed.
The problem is there are no alternatives. Declan Fitzpatrick is not yet fully fit after his latest injury and there are questions about his ability to stay fit once he has recovered. Stephen Archer is being raved about in Munster but he hasn't been exposed to enough top-quality competition for a judgment to be made.
This is the most open championship in a number of years. France, Ireland and England all have a realistic chance of success. Italy will surely be at their most competitive – they were impressive in defeat in November.
Wales are limping into the championship and the odds are stacked against them being able to compete with the initial trio but Wales are defending Grand Slam champions. And their pride means they will not roll over easily.
Scotland will prop up the table.