Saturday 19 January 2019

It'll be tight at the top but experienced Ireland can claim the title

Welsh back-row Ross Moriarty returns from injury for the Scotland match at Cardiff
Welsh back-row Ross Moriarty returns from injury for the Scotland match at Cardiff

Bernard Jackman

You can't beat the final days counting down to the start of the Six Nations. It is a truly great tournament. It captures the imagination and in those days before the opening round of games there is a world of hope and expectation around each team.

It is interesting for me, being based in Wales, to contrast what is being said elsewhere about Warren Gatland's team ahead of the start of the Six Nations with what he himself has been saying.

Scotland come to Cardiff on Saturday looking to establish themselves ahead of Wales in the pecking order. And many fancy they will do just that.

But Gatland has been bullish in the build-up, which has struck some as curious given he will be without some key players - Taulepe Faletau, Rhys Webb and one of his main go-to men, Sam Warburton.

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Having said that, the Welsh back-row options are significantly boosted by the return from injury of Ross Moriarty and the excellent form of Aaron Shingler, the Scarlets blindside

Gatland used the November window to increase his squad depth and also to vary his team's game-plan.

I think that the way the Lions used Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton in tandem so successfully in New Zealand last summer has influenced Rob Howley's outlook and in November, Wales looked to use that second playmaker and play with more width. Scarlets loosehead Rob Evans has been a revelation in this new style and he is very comfortable as a ball-carrier or as a distributor, and is a weapon I expect to see having a big impact.

The first match for Wales is critical. Scotland have shown real progress over the past couple of seasons, firstly under Vern Cotter and now under Gregor Townsend. They were definitely more impressive in November than Wales, but let's not forget that they didn't have as many players on the Lions tour so they were undoubtedly fresher. I still think Wales have enough quality and experience to get a win first up, but Scotland will be a handful for all teams in this Six Nations.

England have injury worries but I feel that Eddie Jones is over-emphasising how damaging that will be to try to play down expectations and put added pressure on the opposition - especially Ireland, as we are the team he will have his sights set on. Eddie is a master at using the media to his own end when he wants.

The fact remains that even with a lengthy injury list, England have more strength in depth than any of the other countries and Jones has created a simple but very effective game-plan which I think will lesson the impact of those injuries because it allows for players to slot in more easily.

Jones can coach many different styles of play. We saw with Japan in the World Cup how he played a really high-tempo, ball-in-hand style. His success with England, however, has been built on the set-piece, on defence and on a smart well-executed kicking game.

He is relentless in his demands for his players to be fitter and apparently the intensity that he is able to get at training now is far higher than when he first started because his squad has adapted. They utilise the Saracens' defensive system, through Paul Gustard. In Owen Farrell, England also have a world-class goal-kicker and game manager.

Jones has developed a strong leadership group, many of whom were involved in the disastrous home World Cup campaign and they are getting their redemption through Six Nations success.

Irish rugby is in rude health and a lot of that is down to Joe Schmidt's influence. He is without doubt the outstanding technical coach in the competition and he has done a great job steadily blooding younger players when they were ready.

Having France away in the first game is good for Ireland because with the performances of Munster and Leinster in Europe fresh in the memory, we arrive in Paris in very good shape. I also think France will improve as the competition progresses, which could spell trouble for England, who go to the Stade de France the week before what many think will be a St Patrick's Day showdown with Ireland in Twickenham.

I believe that Seán O'Brien will be back fit for the later rounds which will be a great boost. The two form absentees who are noticeable are Simon Zebo and Tadhg Beirne, but we have sufficient strength in depth to cover that.

I can understand why Joe hasn't included Zebo for this campaign as he won't be involved when he starts with Racing. I do feel for players who have to sacrifice international aspirations for their club choice but that is a key factor in why we have been able to keep our best talent in Ireland and is at the heart of why the Irish team and provinces are healthy. True, some players leave because they have no option in Ireland and it's definitely harsher to exclude them in the same way as the player who refuses an offer to stay at home in favour of a better one abroad

In Tadhg's case, I imagine his omission is largely down to the fact that he will not be released by his employers Scarlets for all the training camps during the competition, but hopefully there may be some leeway in the future for a player who, like Tadhg, is on his way back to Ireland.

I think this Irish squad is better than recent years. Each competition is giving the players more training and playing time under Joe and they seem to be able to bring their performances to another level in a green jersey, which is testament to the quality of the coaching and the environment that Joe creates

Obviously we are missing world-class players like Heaslip, O'Brien and Payne, but the back-row is an area where we have strength in depth and with Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell now available for selection, we are well covered in most areas, although we do not want anything to befall us at nine or ten as that is something which could derail our Six Nations.

Jordan Larmour will make his debut in this Six Nations, but possibly not until later in the tournament, depending on results and injuries, which are always a factor as the tournament progresses. Ireland will go with the tried and trusted, although Bundee Aki is a potential player of the tournament.

Ireland and England are the two strongest sides this season but Wales and Scotland will be right up there. I fancy Ireland to win the Championship even though I can see us lose once, most likely away to England. As ever, luck will play its part too. The bounce of a ball, a referee's whistle, a healthy squad . . . we're ready for action.

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