So where stands Irish rugby after the conclusion of the pool stages of the Champions Cup and before the start of the 6 Nations?
Leinster qualified second out of 16 qualifiers with a home draw all the way to the Semi-final and with the final at Spurs ground in Tottenham anyway. Munster must face their nemesis, Northampton, away, having just lost to them at Thomond Park. But such is their strength in adversity, I wouldn’t bet against them progressing further, their injury crisis at lock notwithstanding.
Ulster and Connacht are consigned to the last 16 of the Challenge Cup, after uneven performances at the pool stage. Even their most avid fans will probably concede that is their level right now. They have away matches against Montpellier and Pau respectively, which will be no walk in the park.
English Premiership teams bagged six of the last 16 slots, with the Top 14 and the URC on five apiece. But only two of those URC slots went to Ireland, with two to South Africa and one to Scotland (Glasgow). Does that reflect the relative strengths of the leagues, or have the Premiership clubs re-prioritised the Champions Cup now they have fewer matches and only 10 teams in their own league?
There has been much criticism of the number of repeat matches in the last 16. However, in the original Heineken cup pool formats teams played each other home and away. That doesn’t happen in the current pool format but can happen, depending on the rankings, at the knockout stages.
After the pool stage it’s all determined by the rankings, with the higher ranked team having home advantage. So how you qualified matters a lot, even if only eight teams have been eliminated so far. It is now a seeded cup competition, as it should be.
Ireland now play France away in Marseilles in the 6 Nations. Does our having only two Champions Cup qualifiers compared to their five, reflect our relative strength in depth? Perhaps, but you also have to allow for the fact that the Top 14 is flooded with non-French qualified players.
However, players from Ulster, Connacht, and even Munster must be demoralised by the manner of recent defeats at the pool stages, even though they all had one good win apiece. Farrell will have to work on the confidence of some of those players, not all of whom covered themselves in glory.
My guess is that he will go for a largely Leinster based team, with McCarthy forcing himself into the reckoning against the ultra-physical French, and Larmour edging out Nash. Perhaps only Aki, Crowley and Beirne from outside Leinster will make the starting XV with Bealham, Henderson, O’Mahony, and Casey on the bench, together with Henshaw, Frawley, Kelleher, and Healy.
That, at least, should give Ireland the edge in teamwork, early on, against a French team drawn from at least five different clubs and perhaps needing more time to get their systems aligned. A huge amount will depend on how Crowley performs at 10, both in getting his backline going and in kicking his goals. A good performance from Crowley, and we could well win!
Jalibert is probably the form 10 in world rugby right now. Crowley doesn’t have to match him so long as he is solid in attack and defence. He will have plenty of experienced heads around him to spread the load. With Dupont not playing, Gibson-Park is probably the form 9 in northern hemisphere rugby, and Aki not far off At 12. Leinster may not have hit peak form just yet, but they have been heading in the right direction.
Nienaber has Leinster playing with more of a South African style rush defence, a fact which Ulster exploited adroitly in the URC. Farrell will have to sort out those glitches if he is going to adopt a similar approach. France, with Penaud and Bielle-Biarrey on the wings, will be lethal on the counterattack.
Overall, its hard to see a weakness in the French squad, while Ireland are inexperienced at 10 and one injury away from a crisis at loose-head. But you can only have fifteen players on the pitch at any one time, and Ireland have a XV, and perhaps a XXIII to match anyone on their day. It’s all about who can get it together on the day.
Ireland Six Nations squad
Forwards: Tadhg Furlong, Finlay Bealham, Tom O’Toole, Rónan Kelleher, Dan Sheehan, Tom Stewart, Andrew Porter, Jeremy Loughman, Cian Healy, Ian Henderson, Tadhg Beirne, Joe McCarthy, James Ryan, Peter O’Mahony (captain), Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris, Jack Conan, Nick Timoney, Ryan Baird.
Backs: Jamison Gibson-Park. Craig Casey, Conor Murray, Jack Crowley, Harry Byrne, Ciarán Frawley, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Garry Ringrose, Stuart McCloskey, Hugo Keenan, Jacob Stockdale, James Lowe, Calvin Nash, Jordan Larmour.
Training panellists: Oli Jager, Tom Ahern, Sam Prendergast
Compared to my suggested 37 man squad in my last OP, Oli Jager, Nick Timoney, and Sam Prendergast get in while Cian Prendergast, John Hodnett and Gavin Coombes miss out. I think that is tough on the last named trio – they have all been in fine form – but it also illustrates our strength in depth in the back row.
Backs: Louis Bielle-Biarrey, Jonathan Danty, Nicolas Depoortere, Gael Fickou, Emilien Gailleton, Antoine Gibert, Matthieu Jalibert, Melvyn Jaminet, Nolann Le Garrec, Matthis Lebel, Maxime Lucu, Yoram Moefana, Damian Penaud, Thomas Ramos.
Forwards: Esteban Abadie, Dorian Aldegheri, Gregory Alldritt, Uini Atonio, Cyril Baille, Gaetan Barlot, Paul Boudehent, Francois Cros, Paul Gabrillagues, Matthias Halagahu, Anthony Jelonch, Thomas Laclayat, Julien Marchand, Peato Mauvaka, Emmanuel Meafou, Charles Ollivon, Romain Taofifenua, Sebastien Taofifenua, Reda Wardi, Cameron Woki.
Missing only Dupont and perhaps Ntamack from their first choice XV, France have formidable strength in depth in every position. If they get find their mojo and get the crowd behind them, Ireland will be in for a long night.
PS France have just announced that Meafou and Jelonch will be unavailable due to injury. Both are outstanding players and their absence may weaken France slightly, despite their strength in depth.