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Tony Ward: Schmidt factor can give us the vital edge over rivals

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Joe Schmidt is the perfect choice as Irish head coach as has set a target of a top-two Six Nations finish SPORTSFILE

Joe Schmidt is the perfect choice as Irish head coach as has set a target of a top-two Six Nations finish SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

Joe Schmidt is the perfect choice as Ireland head coach

Joe Schmidt is the perfect choice as Ireland head coach

David Rogers/Getty Images

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Joe Schmidt is the perfect choice as Irish head coach as has set a target of a top-two Six Nations finish SPORTSFILE

I Am not too sure what it is about the Six Nations, but every time it comes around, I get this confident feeling we can take on and beat the rest... silly!

Conventional wisdom dictates that can only happen every second year when we are home to the 'big two' – England and France. However, I no more accede to that theory than to this balderdash about the Irish, English, Scottish and Welsh players being so whacked following their summer endeavours Down Under (bear in mind we are talking July 2013 here) that any post-Lions Championship is a sure-fire French Grand Slam.

Okay, so history dictates the 2014 campaign has already been decided – the side which picked up the Wooden Spoon a year ago is going to smash the other five into smithereens this time around.

However, I don't believe Philippe Saint-Andre's multi-talented squad can complete a fourth Grand Slam and sixth outright championship success since the Five Nations became six.

What can be said, though, is that when it comes to the countries best equipped to win the Six Nations, given their strength-in-depth, then England and France must be favourites almost every time.

Of course, the jewel in the northern hemisphere crown doesn't work like that, so, armed with the knowledge that on any given day anyone of the six can beat anyone of the others, it is with total and utter optimism that each competing nation (yes, even the Italians) believe this to be their year.

FITNESS

It is this element, allied to the traditional tribalism that makes this tournament so special, irrespective of what may have gone on before.

Each year represents a clean slate and new ambition. And, like most out there, I, too, am the perennial optimist. Even in the really bad times – the 1990s immediately come to mind – the belief was that this was the year we would finally turn everything around. And so it is again in 2014.

But there are, I believe there are some very solid reasons why we can do well:

1 Despite the loss of Tommy Bowe, Sean O'Brien and Donnacha Ryan to injury, we are in pretty good nick in terms of fitness and form going into what is sure to be another exacting campaign.

2 The draw has been kind in so far as we have our opening two games at home. Not for a minute am I suggesting that victory over the Scots or Welsh is a given, but, in terms of home comforts, we couldn't be better set even with the English and French on the road to come.

3 For me, the biggest plus of all centres around the new main man. Perhaps we are heaping unnecessary and unfair pressure on Joe Schmidt, but, as with the RFU when choosing Stuart Lancaster as head coach to England to succeed Martin Johnson, I believe that, in Schmidt, the IRFU could not have chosen any more wisely, irrespective of who was available worldwide.

It is the Schmidt factor which could, and I feel might, just give us a distinct edge over the next six or so weeks. Will it be enough to win a second Six Nations championship in Brian O'Driscoll's last year? Possibly, although, realistically, it could well prove a step to far. Schmidt himself has set a target of top-two finish and I think that's an achievable objective.

In fact, while the Welsh, in search of a history-making third Six Nations title on the bounce (and fifth in all), justifiably kick off as pre-tournament favourites, all evidence points to a real scramble in an effort to top the European pile.

So, what can we expect on this opening weekend of action. Well, the beauty of this year's tournament is its uncertainty.

First up today it's Wales v Italy in Cardiff, where it is difficult to look beyond anything but a comprehensive home win.

That said, to get the Italians in your early matches is not exactly ideal (and, yes, I am aware of what transpired in Rome in the final Championship game of 2013). At this stage, they are as fired-up and as ambitious as any of the other five.

They come into this year's tournament on the back of a best-ever finish in 2013. The performance in beating Ireland was full of passion, vibrancy and no little skill under former Perpignan coach Jacques Brunel. The perennial problem is at half-back and specifically manufacturing a Diego Dominguez-type presence in the No 10 shirt.

How ironic would it be, given the Scottish dilemma in the same sector, were former underage out-half Tommy Allan (born of an Italian mother) to prove the perfect Italian fit.

Get that right and the Azzurri will take some beating. However, a backline containing Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Alex Cuthbert, Jamie Roberts, Mike Phillips, et al reminds us of the halcyon days of the seventies.

Verdict: Wales by 20

Later on this afternoon in St Denis it's 'Le Crunch,' when the French and English clash in the game that has so often decided the Championship in times past.

Will it be pivotal again now? Only time will tell, but if ever a match was made in heaven to set the temperamental French in the mood, then this is it.

Win today, tails will be up and another Grand Slam/Championship assault will be in full swing.

The latest French 'Tinkerman' fields his `10th half-back partnership in two years when pairing the uncapped Jules Plisson with Jean-Marc Doussain. It is a strange, some would say, foolhardy, decision, given the context of the game.

The loss of Thierry Dusautoir will be critical to Saint-Andre, every bit as much as that of O'Brien to Schmidt.

England, by contrast, continue to experiment, by necessity, behind the scrum.

I would have liked to have seen George Ford included on the bench, but his time will come. So, too, Anthony Watson. But, for now, opportunity knocks for Luther Burrell and Jack Nowell.

Burrell will certainly face a baptism of fire in the guise of Mathieu Basteraud and Wesley Fofana on their home patch.

Verdict: Owen Farrell's unerring accuracy to prove the difference with the clash of Billy Vunipola and Louis Picamoles worth the admission money alone.

Then tomorrow, the big one in this part of the world, the clash of the Celts.

Odds of 1/7 to get off to a winning start is not what Schmidt, Paul O'Connell or anyone else involved wants to hear, but such is the reality of life in the fast lane of Six Nations Rugby.

Verdict : Our playmaker-in-chief to experience once again the pleasures of home and deliver the type of performance befitting his new-found French status. Johnny Sexton can copper-fasten the bookies confidence. Shamrock to eclipse Thistle by 10.

Buccaneers unveil their 'dream team'

The 2014 Junior (U-20) Six Nations Championship kicked off in Dubarry Park last night courtesy of Buccaneers RFC.

The Athlone venue has become part and parcel of the Six Nations season, with a veritable conveyor belt of talent coming through the underage system before making it up to the highest level.

To that end, Buccs' ever amiable PRO Michael Silke has put together a 'dream team' composed of players who have graced Dubarry in recent seasons before going on to represent Ireland at senior level.

15 – Felix Jones

14 – Dave Kearney

13 – Robbie Henshaw

12 – Ian Madigan

11 – Fergus McFadden

10 – Jonny Sexton

9 – Conor Murray

1 – Cian Healy

2 – Sean Cronin

3 – Stephen Archer

4 – Dan Tuohy

5 – Devin Toner

6 – Peter O'Mahony

7 – Sean O'Brien

8 – Rhys Ruddock

Replacements : Keith Earls, Simon Zebo, Darren Cave, Paddy Jackson, JJ Hanrahan, Ian Keatley, Stuart Olding, Paul Marshall, Iain Henderson, Tommy O'Donnell, Jack McGrath and Jamie Hagan.

And Jordi Murphy and Martin Moore could qualify very shortly!

Irish Independent