Tuesday 20 February 2018

Likely lads: The contenders and their prospects


In the corresponding situation four years ago, Ireland raced through to a photo finish in the Championship with France, spurring us to unprecedented confidence levels going to the World Cup.

This time? The uniquely long injury list has calmed the punters. Never have Ireland been so lucky to have Italy first up for they will need momentum to take advantage of having France and England at home. The Murrayfield trip takes on a different colour after last season but gradually Ireland are developing the depth to cope.

Casualties: Rob Kearney, Geordan Murphy; Jamie Heaslip, Shane Horgan, Tommy Bowe, John Hayes, Andrew Trimble

Star Turn: Sean O'Brien

Championship odds: 11/4


After the win over the Wallabies in November, they were -- in elements of the media at any rate -- on the cusp of world domination. Two weeks later, the Springboks arrived and, despite being at the fag end of an exhausting 14 Tests in six months, battered the home team into submission.

The positive spin put on their autumn was excessive, but the bookies are running with it. Like Wales, if they get off to a slow start they will struggle. And if that happens it will be intriguing to see who they pick across the middle of what currently is a brawny attack. Capable of more.

Casualties: Lewis Moody, Tom Croft, Courtney Lawes, Delon Armitage (suspension)

Star Turn: Ben Youngs

Championship odds: 2/1


Even allowing for the tide of foreign players still washing through the French system, their throughput of teams into the knockout stages of both European competitions bodes well for the national side.

Their scary stat however is the concession of over 40 points in three Tests since last season's Grand Slam. No one is sure how they will react. Along the way Marc Lievremont has used up all the leg room afforded him in their mid-table finishes in his first two seasons of chopping and changing. Pick the right team and they'll win it.

Casualties: Romain Millo-Chluski, Dimitri Szarzewski, Fabien Barcella

Star Turn: Thierry Dusatoir

Championship odds: 9/4


Their record is woeful: two wins from the last 12 games. The context however is that half of that total are against the Tri Nations and in only one of those -- Dunedin in June last year -- were they beaten out the gate. They are capable of playing some rugby -- just not for long.

If they lose first up at home against England, then you'd fear for them, in which case the words 'escape clause' will feature increasingly in sentences mentioning Warren Gatland. They may well be 0/2 going to Rome in the third round.

Casualties: Adam Jones, Gethin Jenkins, Richie Rees (suspended), Tom Shanklin, Toby Faletau, Andrew Bishop, George North

Star Turn: James Hook

Championship odds: 6/1


Should they be upbeat about a summer where they beat the Argies 2-0, and an autumn where they looked half useful, or downcast at yet another blank sheet from their clubs in Europe?

Their forwards are capable of going toe to toe with anyone but they need someone who can score tries. They managed only one in November, and from their last five games they have been try-less in three of them. No sign of the radical turnaround in that trend -- and radical is what they need with just one win per campaign in the last four seasons.

Casualties: Graeme Morrison, Chris Cusiter, Ally Dickinson

Star Turn: John Barclay

Championship odds: 16/1


Typical of Italy's luck, their injury count is remarkably low, yet confined to the one area where they need stability: outhalf. They will badly miss the defensive organisation and power of Craig Gower -- if not his fairly limited attacking skills -- and the problem is compounded by Treviso barely giving any game time to his partner Edoardo Gori, who Nick Mallett anointed as the chosen one in the autumn.

So you have to feel for the coach, who has built a strong team spirit, and who pleased the players no end by knocking back the offer from Twickenham. Odd years have been kind to Italy. Not sure about this one though.

Casualties: Craig Gower, Mauro Bergamasco

Star Turn: Andrea Masi

Championship odds: 250/1


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