Ireland have a patchy record in the 6 Nations rugby championship with only four wins since Italy joined in 2000. This compares to seven for England, and six for France and Wales, and none for Scotland or Italy. The figures for Grand Slams are even worse, with four for France and Wales and two for England and Ireland. So it ill-becomes us to become too sniffy about a tournament which funds virtually the entire game in Ireland.
Some younger fans, who don’t remember the horrible 1990’s and early 2000’s, regard it as little more than a warm-up tournament for the World Cup, allegedly the only game in town for the world’s no. 1 ranked country. We didn’t win the 6 Nations for the first time until 2009, even if we did pick up three Triple Crowns in 2004, 2006 and 2007. In the entire history of the tournament, since 1883, we have a positive win/lose ratio only against Italy. We are still playing catch-up with everyone else.
I’ve never subscribed to the theory that you can peak too early and that experimenting and losing now might improve our chances in the World Cup. Ireland don’t wear the mantle of favourites lightly, but that’s just one more psychological milestone we have to pass if we want to become one of the world’s top rugby nations on a consistent basis.
That said, we have always been vulnerable to injuries to key players, and so improving our strength in depth is a strategic imperative. With absolutely no disrespect to an improving Italy, I would be all for rotating our team for that match to ensure our fringe and emerging players have the opportunity to gain the experience and cohesion required to slot in for established players as the occasion demands.
This year we play France and England, traditionally our most difficult opponents at home. This should give us a lightly better chance of winning, but we have never clinched a Grand Slam on home soil before. We also haven’t beaten Wales, our first opponents, in Cardiff in ten years, so there are a lot of records to be broken.
Wales have just re-appointed Warren Gatland, so often our nemesis, as their head coach. He has named a very experienced side to face us, presumably using his famous “Warrenball” tactics of rush defence and high balls into the air. There is an argument that some of his players may be past their best, and that the turmoil in Welsh regional rugby is reducing the number of outstanding new players coming through. Saturday will tell a tale.
Wales: 15. Leigh Halfpenny, 14. Josh Adams, 13. George North, 12. Joe Hawkins, 11. Rio Dyer, 10. Dan Biggar, 9. Tomos Williams, 1. Gareth Thomas, 2. Ken Owens (capt), 3. Tomas Francis, 4. Adam Beard, 5. Alun Wyn Jones, 6. Jac Morgan, 7. Justin Tipuric, 8. Taulupe Faletau.
Replacements: 16. Scott Baldwin, 17. Rhys Carre, 18. Dillon Lewis, 19. Dafydd Jenkins, 20. Tommy Reffell, 21. Rhys Webb, 22. Owen Williams, 23. Alex Cuthbert.
Ireland head Coach, Andy Farrell, has also named the most experienced, tried and trusted team at his disposal, with an absolute minimum of changes from the outstandingly successful New Zealand tour las summer. Bar a late injury to Furlong, the starting pack will be the same as started all three tests against the All Blacks as well as the November tests against South Africa and Australia. The same goes for the backline, bar the injured Henshaw, with Sexton and Lowe coming back in for Crowley and O’Brien who subbed for them in the last test against Australia. Teams don’t get to be much more settled than this.
Ireland: Hugo Keenan (Leinster); Mack Hansen (Connacht), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Stuart McCloskey (Ulster), James Lowe (Leinster); Johnny Sexton (Leinster, capt), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster), Dan Sheehan (Leinster), Finlay Bealham (Connacht); James Ryan (Leinster), Tadhg Beirne (Munster); Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Caelan Doris (Leinster).
Replacements: Rob Herring (Ulster), Cian Healy (Leinster), Tom O’Toole (Ulster), Iain Henderson (Ulster), Jack Conan (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster), Ross Byrne (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht).
The main problem with the selection is that quite a few of them have been short of game time recently, particularly Sexton, Aki, Murray, Lowe and Henderson. All have proven they can come back at full speed after a spell out injured. The plan is probably to pick the team he wants to play against France and give them some game time together against Wales to improve their cohesion and get them back up to full match fitness.
The young guns and other players on the fringe of the team will have to wait until the match against Italy to get their chance – players like Larmour, O’Brien, Osborne, Earls, Stockdale, Crowley, Casey, Kilcoyne, Kelleher/Stewart, Baird, McCarthy, Prendergast, and Coombes. It could be the first time in history Ireland will rotate most of their squad in the 6 Nations, because it is probably the first time we have had the strength in depth to be able to do so. Italy are an improving side, so it will be a real test for the fringe players to step up.
The team didn’t quite click in the Autumn, as they had done in New Zealand. However, if they can perform at anything like the level they reached in New Zealand they should be too strong for Wales, even in Cardiff, and then have a right tilt against the reigning Champions, France, the week after. If we can’t win those two matches it is >unlikely we will be able to make it past the quarterfinal stage of the World Cup, given that we will likely be facing the All Blacks or France at home if we get that far. We are also unlikely to be able to win the World cup if our fringe players can’t beat Italy, given that injuries and fatigue will mean several of them may have to step up to the first team.
Overall, the average age of Ireland’s 38-man squad is 28 with an average of 34 caps a man – an ideal blend of age and experience. Most players don’t reach their peak until their late 20’s, and it usually takes a couple of seasons for them to really establish themselves as a leader within the team. Our injury profile is reasonably good with Henshaw and Furlong the only first choice players unavailable. Prop is probably Ireland’s weakest position, in terms of strength in depth, so Furlong’s absence is a real test for our back-up players in the position.
Scotland head coach, Gregor Townsend has also picked an experienced side to face England in their Calcutta Cup encounter in Twickenham. Currently ranked 7th. in the World, just behind England in 5th. and ahead of Wales at 9th. They are always capable of causing an upset but have lacked the consistency required to win tournaments. Townsend has had his disciplinary issues within the squad, and particularly with star players Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg, but all is forgiven and both players start. Munster’s Ben Healy fails to make the bench on his first involvement with the squad, but the scrum half slot seems wide open should Ulster’s John Cooney switch his allegiance to Scotland when he becomes eligible in March.
Scotland: Stuart Hogg; Kyle Steyn, Huw Jones, Sione Tuipulotu, Duhan van der Merwe; Finn Russell, Ben White; Pierre Schoeman, George Turner, WP Nel; Richie Gray, Grant Gilchrist; Jamie Ritchie (captain), Luke Crosbie, Matt Fagerson.
Replacements: Fraser Brown, Jamie Bhatti, Simon Berghan, Jonny Gray, Jack Dempsey, George Horne, Blair Kinghorn, Chris Harris.
Like Wales, England have also just sacked their head coach, Eddie Jones, and replaced him with Steve Borthwick. It is rarely a good sign when a head coach has to be replaced just ahead of a major tournament, but sometimes that can also lead to a bounce in performance. Like Wales, England also have a lengthy injury list and issues at professional club level. But more than any country, bar France, they have the depth of playing resources to overcome such issues. The question is can they achieve the necessary cohesion and unity around a new game plan in time for this tournament? Ireland play them last, so we will know a lot more by then. There is no such thing as a weak England team.
England Team: 15. Freddie Steward; 14. Max Malins, 13. Joe Marchant, 12. Owen Farrell (C) 11. Ollie Hassell-Collins; 10. Marcus Smith, 9. Jack van Poortvliet; 1. Ellis Genge (VC), 2. Jamie George , 3. Kyle Sinckler; 4. Maro Itoje, 5. Ollie Chessum; 6. Lewis Ludlam, 7. Ben Curry, 8. Alex Dombrandt
Replacements: 16. Jack Walker, 17. Mako Vunipola, 18. Dan Cole, 19. Nick Isiekwe, 20. Ben Earl, 21. Ben Youngs, 22. Ollie Lawrence, 23. Anthony Watson.
France have phenomenal depth in their squad in every position and are best placed to overcome any injury issues which may arise. The reigning champions, and with a home World Cup in September, they won’t lack for confidence and ambition. If anyone is going to really challenge Ireland’s newfound status as World No. 1, it will be France, even away in Lansdowne Road. Their packs often monster us upfront and they have the outstanding backs to take advantage. Sometimes, in the past, they could be caught cold early in a tournament or lacking in cohesion, especially away or against a team they didn’t really rate. I doubt we will have any such luck this time around.
Italy are the perennial whipping boys of the tournament but have had an infusion of outstanding young players in the past year. Victories over Wales (away), Australia and Samoa show they are making real progress, particularly in the backs. In Michele Lamaro, Paolo Garbisi, Ignacio Brex, Tommaso Menocello and Ange Capuozzo they have players who would grace any squad. They are unlikely to catch any opposition team off-guard, however.
Italy and France don’t play until Sunday and will announce their teams tomorrow. I will update you in the comments. This year’s 6 Nations is a serious dress rehearsal for the World Cup, as well as being a brilliant competition in its own right. The battle to win both starts now!
Frank Schnittger is a former senior executive in a leading multinational in Dublin and London and has a Masters in Peace Studies from Trinity College. He has been a director of a number of charitable and voluntary organisations in the community development, education, holistic addiction treatment and restorative justice sectors. He is editor of the European Tribune and a moderator of the Irish Rugby Fan Forum.