Sport Rugby

Saturday 20 January 2018

Ireland have enough class to retain Six Nations title

Munster lads can lead the way in holding on to Six Nations crown

Felix Jones in action during squad training
Felix Jones in action during squad training

David Wallace

Heading into tomorrow's Six Nations opener against Italy I'm sure Joe Schmidt and his management are pretty comfortable in their skin.

They'd love to have Johnny Sexton at the helm, ideally they'd like Sean O'Brien and Cian Healy with more game time under their belt, and they must have questions at tighthead, but as defending champions everyone else will be focused on them. Ireland are still the team to beat.

Traditionally it is always said that Ireland's best opportunity of winning the championship comes the years we host both England and France - it just goes to show how impressive last year's win was.

With the two heavy hitters in town this season, you'd have to think it improves Ireland's chances.

France continue to be one of the great mysteries of the game. They looked to have turned a corner in the November internationals with impressive wins against Fiji and Australia, but then they followed it up with a defeat to Argentina.

But the title could well depend on tonight's opening game between Wales and England. If England were to go to Cardiff and get off to a winning start it would be a massive fillip for Stuart Lancaster and his troops.

If Wales get their campaign off to a flyer, they'd fancy their chances of backing it up against Scotland next week, and with Ireland to visit the Millennium Stadium anything can happen.

But if the Saxons' performance against the Ireland Wolfhounds last weekend is anything to go by, expect England to stick to the basics, do them well and grind out a few results in the next few weeks. The power in their pack was stunning at times and when they bludgeon their way through the phases, they have the talent out wide to score plenty of tries.

I was delighted for Felix Jones last week when he was handed the chance to captain the Wolfhounds, it was a massive occasion for him, and he's a guy that will surely play his part as the Six Nations goes on.

Infectious

Anyone who knows him knows how good a leader he is, not alone his demeanour off the pitch, but his work-rate in training and enthusiasm about everything is infectious. It is great to see him getting to captain the team.

Elsewhere, I was also impressed with how Connacht's Eoin McKeon went at openside too. By all accounts he was a late call-up into the squad, but he was one of the few in the pack that really stood out.

Looking at last year's competition, Ireland and England were the two top teams when it came to the small details. Both sides excelled at the breakdown, their continuity game was excellent and their set-piece also operated well.

But if Ireland are to win back to back titles for the first time since the 1940s, they need to bring a bit more of an off-loading game to the table. Going by the autumn internationals, we were very much a pick-and-drive off the ruck and mauling side, but teams will have figured that out by now.

Without wanting to put the cart before the horse, I'm convinced that Joe Schmidt will stick Johnny Sexton back into the side next weekend for France. He'll have been preparing for that game since he came into the camp, he'll have his kicking work done, and most of all he has the best knowledge of the French squad from his time playing there.

Ian Madigan and Ian Keatley will get their chance tomorrow, but unless there is some last-minute hitch with his fitness I can't see Sexton missing out.

Tomorrow I'll have my green hat on, but as usual I'll be watching with Munster in mind. I'll be keen to see if Peter O'Mahony can be as destructive in Rome as he is for Munster; I'm looking forward to Paulie showing what a world class operator he is; Simon Zebo is a real danger man and has plenty to prove after missing out last year - he has added an extra yard of pace and has worked on the things Schmidt asked him to - while I think we'll see Conor Murray take another step forward in his game in the next few weeks.

It'll be a huge few weeks for Ireland and I think the Munster contingent will be to the fore when Ireland clinch another Six Nations title.

Irish Independent

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