Ahead of a mouthwatering, and possibly wide-open Six Nations, the Balls.ie Rugby Nerds have produced a suitable epic preview of rugby's most EPIC competition.
Everything hinges on tomorrow afternoon for Ireland. Paddy Logan looks forward to Wales v Ireland and says it's time for a bit of payback
It’s time for some payback – in fact, that time passed long ago and the pain is becoming unbearable. The scarlet of Wales fills me with dark thoughts: Mike Phillips charging past an incredulous Paulie to score with the wrong ball; the World Cup quarter final in which Ireland, inexplicably, seemed incapable of devising a Plan B when Wales implemented their simple plan to tackle Super Stevie and SOB round their ankles; watching Ireland invite Wales into their 22 for Wayne Barnes to yellow card Ferris for daring to tackle an opponent. Even the joy of 2009 only came after the longest and most unbearable 90 seconds following Paddy Wallace’s indiscretion just inside his own half. So this Saturday at the Minnellium we have just got to win – but will we?
Club form suggests that Ireland should despatch the Taffs with something to spare: Ulster and Munster have qualified for the Heiny quarters; Leinster have probably played the best rugby of all of them in recent weeks and our lone westerner was one of the outstanding forwards of the Autumn series. By contrast, the Welsh regions are having a total shocker, the national team is on a run of 7 consecutive losses and Rob Howley has had to trawl the streets of Newport to find a back up for his 5 injured second rows. Add to that the absence of Priestland and the patchy form of Phillips, Davies and Roberts, and their prospects look bleak.
However, to write off Wales would be beyond foolhardy. Adam Jones is fit and Gethin Jenkins is well rested from warming the Toulon bench. Rees is back and their monster three-quarters will be itching to test the technique and bravery of Ireland’s new wingers. Indeed this is the area that caused Eddie O most concern when sharing his views on OTB earlier this week when he suggested that the robust defence of Andrew Trimble might be more appropriate. Part of me agrees with him, particularly as I am Trimble’s biggest fan, but I can’t help thinking that Deccie’s back-three selection is hugely exciting. It will certainly be fun to watch.
Talking of the selection, many of my fellow Ulster fans have bemoaned the lack of representatives from this season’s most successful province. However, I think that it is really hard to argue that any of the Ulster players have been hard done by, except perhaps Jackson and, definitely, Chris Henry.
Henry has been in magnificent form. So much so that one can talk of him as a possible Lions starter without sounding completely ridiculous. Despite starting out as an 8, he now looks every inch a scavenging openside, and has more than held his own against the best in Europe this season, including Warburton whom he played off the Arms Park in Ulster’s humbling of the Blues. Whilst I understand the rationale of going with O’Mahony for total domination at the line-out, I think to leave your finest tearaway on the bench against Wales is the wrong call, not to mention the sense of injustice that a player who has been consistently outstanding doesn’t get a start. His only consolation can be that Rob Howley seems equally averse to picking his best openside, opting for the out-of-form Warburton over Justin Tipuric.
The case for Jackson is much less convincing given his shaky club form of late. However, the argument that O’Gara is the best man to close out a game looks pretty ropey after the Autumn series. He would also provide an open invitation for Jamie Roberts to enter the Irish backfield and stands so deep that our own chances of getting over the gainline will be virtually non-existent. Clearly he’s only there to take the kicks in the event of Jonny getting hurt. For me it’s a very retrograde selection and I’d have been much happier to see Jackson or Madigan on the bench.
As I’ve said, Ireland should win, and I think they will, but it’s going to be close and the last 10 minutes will almost certainly make for painful viewing. As we’ve heard endlessly this week, the losers will effectively be out of the competition and I don’t see Wales getting much change out of England or France.
Elsewhere this weekend, England should retain the Calcutta Cup but will be hoping for a vastly superior performance at HQ to the dross they served up at Murrayfield last year. In the absence of Tuilagi, only Mike Brown excites in a very dour backline but the England pack is really solid with some monsters ready to come off the bench. Although they’re nowhere near as good as they think they are following their whipping of a norovirus-stricken All Blacks, I think that Stuart Lancaster has really got something going here and England have a shot at the Slam. On paper, Scotland look to have plenty of talent. They have a strong pack and some exciting backs and can afford to leave classy players such as Ford, Kellock and Max Evans on the bench. It will be interesting to see how they gel under Scott Johnson and Dean Ryan. If their new coaching team can get them playing some decent rugby, I fancy them to do better than most are predicting.
In Rome, Italy will hope to repeat their famous victory of 2 years ago. However, I’d be willing to bet my house that they won’t repeat it this year, if I could get odds that is. France had by far the best of the Autumn series and look brutally strong in all areas carrying through the European form of their clubs. Their backrow of Dusautoir, Ouedraogo and Picamoles is simply awesome, so much so that they could afford to leave the magnificent Yannick Nyanga out of the match day squad. We can also expect to see the gargantuan Romain Taofifenua make his 6 Nations debut and a return for the human wrecking ball that is Matthieu Bastareaud – this definitely won’t be one for the faint hearted. France should win comfortably and are my favourites for the title and a possible Grand Chelem if they can negotiate tricky trips to Twickers and D4.
How They’ll Finish
Andy McGeady crunches the numbers ahead of Ireland's make-or-break match at the Millenium.
Declan Kidney made a big choice in going for Peter O'Mahony over Chris Henry for Saturday's match against Wales. Before looking at that specifically, let's look at a couple of other factors from Ireland's general play in the Autumn Internationals.
During Ireland's short Autumn series they proved exceptionally good at not turning over the ball during play. With an average of 11 turnovers per game they recorded the lowest mark by any team who played in 2012's Autumn Internationals, the Rugby Championship or the Six Nations; the nearest being the 11.2 per game conceded by Wales in their grand slam winning campaign last spring.
This good work was reflected in Ireland's try to turnover rate which was hugely efficient*.
From primary possession Ireland managed to record the best mark by a Six Nations team in not just one but both measures, resulting in an excellent 1:1 ratio. It compares very well to any other mark, the nearest being England who are just outside the 1:2 range.
*Because Ireland played just two full test matches with one of those being a seven-try romp against Argentina, this comes with a sample size health warning. On the other hand, Ireland didn't get to call their game against Fiji a test match due to the IRFU's contractual obligations to Aviva. So we'll let it ride.
Unfortunately this discipline in one aspect of the game was returned with interest in the extravagantly generous number of penalties given away by Ireland, a full 15.5 per match. Nor was this a matter of getting on the wrong side of a referee in one particular game; against South Africa Ireland conceded 15 while against Argentina Ireland conceded 16. Admirable consistency, if mis-applied.
With all of the above in mind it's interesting to note some key differences between Chris Henry and Peter O'Mahony, Declan Kidney's two primary open-side options for the Six Nations.
Henry and O'Mahony played 160 minutes and 142 minutes respectively in the two Autumn tests. Defensively, they were of a similar order with Henry's 100% tackle rate (13/0) balanced by O'Mahony's two forced turnovers in the tackle while maintaining an acceptable 88% rate (15/2).
O'Mahony's good work in the tackle area, however, was undone in a major way by his lack of discipline elsewhere on the park. In conceding six penalties, third most by a Six Nations player in the Autumn tests, O'Mahony was penalised twice as often as Henry while spending less time on the pitch. For good measure, O'Mahony also conceded three turnovers to Henry's nice round zero.
With ball in hand, Henry again shone brighter than his Munster rival; both had 16 carries but Henry made twice as many yards from those carries, 40 to 21.
Ireland used O'Mahony as their primary target in the middle of the lineout which was without doubt a factor in Kidney's decision-making. Henry wasn't entirely absent from the aerial battle; he was Ireland's key man from restarts taking six of them while nobody else took even two. It's important to note that these two elements, lineout targeting and restart collection, have a very high dependency on systems and gameplans on a given day. In that regard they cannot be viewed in isolation; they are included simply to illustrate that whichever of these two players lost out they would leave work that will have to be passed on to somebody else on Saturday. Rugby is like that. Is that lineout role enough to overlook the many other areas in which O'Mahony was outshone by Henry? It's certainly worth asking the question.
Return of the King
As mentioned, one of O'Mahony's positives was his forcing two turnovers in the tackle area. During the Autumn series, compared to the other Six Nations sides Ireland were actually below average where forcing such turnovers was concerned, averaging three per match. For the last decade Ireland have been extremely fortunate in having two centres, Gordon D'arcy and Brian O'Driscoll, who have played the role of auxiliary open-sides turning over countless ball in the tackle area. More recently they have been joined by Jonathan Sexton who shows consistent excellence in both making hits and standing people up.
With this in mind it was notable that Ireland were alone among the Six Nations teams playing last Autumn in that not one of their turnovers in the tackle was forced by a back. That was in a side without Brian O'Driscoll, famed for his prowess in the tackle area. O'Driscoll's return and his ability at the breakdown could well have gone some way to allowing Kidney to choose O'Mahony over a more pure open-side in Henry, judging that O'Driscoll would be picking up some of the slack.
N.B. The Autumn Internationals data used in this article was supplied by the good people of Opta. <!–nextpage–>
Gavin Grace considers at Declan Kidney's last stand.
If you're a rugby fan, then the countdown to the Six Nations has been going on for a while now, possible since the end of last year's Championship. Yet while that particular clock is almost finished ticking, another is quietly whirring towards its conclusion in the background... on this website.
Declan Kidney says he's had no contract talks with the IRFU yet - and that's he's not concerned. At least half of that is unlikely to be true, but with no extension penned it's fair to assume that the next five games will see his team play for his job. And with the nature of the Championship as it is, and Ireland's fixtures as they are, then a good start could hardly be more crucial. Win and a title challenge is possible - lose, and the country's mood shifts from one of optimism, to one of trepidation ahead of the visit of our fiercest rivals, probably off the back of a strong win. Arguably, tomorrow's match is the most important yet for the coach, in terms of his future at the helm of the national side.
One result in and of itself shouldn't make such a difference, but it does. It's the sort of situation no coach would envy, and one in which experience could prove an asset. In one way, that experience is there. Rory Best, Brian O'Driscoll and Rob Kearney all return having missed out in November - Gordon D'Arcy and Jamie Heaslip are in situ too. However, the other starters have an average of just 17 senior caps each. Add to this the controversial removal of the captain's armband from the sport's talisman of the last decade, and Kidney's position becomes even more unenviable. Any hiccups will be greeted with "I told you" so's from the Monday morning out-halves across the land.
So the pressure cooker has been turned up to 11, but that doesn't mean the result will leave a sour taste. Many have quibbles with the Irish starting 15 - it could have been Henry over O'Mahony, Earls could have been named, D'Arcy is there by default - but by and large we'd all select about 12 of the starting 15. And with rare exceptions, the squad is also injury free so there can be no excuses on that front.
All Ireland have to do now, for the coach, is win against the defending Grand Slam Champions who've beaten us in our last three meetings. Away from home. Wales may have lost seven in a row but they're still a strong team, and retain their awesome backline.
In spite of the difficulties facing Ireland, I do think we win tomorrow. Our lineout should be a strength against an injury-hit Welsh pack, and I back our scrum and back-line to keep their opposite numbers in check. Wins in Edinburgh and Rome should be expected then, and if we win one home game against the big powers then it's a good year. It probably won't be enough to claim overall glory, which I think will go England's way, but it promises to be an open Championship and if Ireland stay involved on the last weekend, then the coach stays.
However, that's all dependent on tomorrow. Win, and we've an exciting few weeks to look forward to. Lose, and the site of his greatest triumph in the role could be the spot which marks the beginning of the end for Kidney.
Ronan Murphy looks at the chances of the other 5 teams in the Six Nations
They say an animal is at its most dangerous when wounded but England are most dangerous when confident and rolling along. Whatever about the caveats surrounding their win over the All Blacks, they still beat the All Blacks and the boost to confidence will be immense. Stuart Lancaster continues to give youth its head, which is good for England's long term, but a lack of leadership experience was exposed against Australia and South Africa in tight games in November. Trips to Ireland and Wales will ask serious questions but don't be surprised if they make the championship shakeup.
Six Nations High Point: Grand Slam 2003. Despite being champions in '01 and '02 England had failed to amass the clean sweep until 2003. They went on to win the World Cup later in the year. Haven't managed a Grand Slam since.
Six Nations Low Point:
Ireland 24-8 England, 2011. With the title in bag England let another Grand Slam slip through their fingers with a comprehensive defeat in Dublin.
Lions Watch: Tighthead is looking like a position of strength for the Lions with Mike Ross and Adam Jones both excellent scrummagers but England No. 3 Dan Cole combines great tight work with an ability to get around the park. Warren Gatland will be keeping an eye on scrum halves Ben Youngs and Danny Care as well, especially their discipline.
Wins in 2013: 3
The cliche persist that France are the enigma of the Six Nations ("Which French team will turn up?") but the real mystery revolves around the Welsh. Their win rate in Six Nations history only just sneaks over half (50.7%) and yet they have managed 3 Grand Slams. Striping out the years where they triumphed and the win rate drops to 36% and they haven't won a Championship without a Grand Slam. If any team tends to check out when things don't go their way, it's actually Wales. Tight five injuries, an inexperienced flyhalf and rudderless performances in November would seem to put them down the pecking order but a win against Ireland could set them rolling again.
Six Nations High Point: Pick a Grand Slam, any Grand Slam.
Six Nations Low Point: Italy 23-20 Wales, 2007. Becoming only the second team to lose in Italy.
Lions Watch: Everything is on the line for Sam Warburton over the next few weeks. After leading Wales to a World Cup semi-final and a Grand Slam he was starting to look uncatchable in the race for Lions captain. Scroll on 12 months and a series of injuries and poor form have him under serious pressure to hold onto his Welsh jersey under the challenge of the flying Justin Tipuric.
Wins in 2013: 3
Scottish rugby is having a fairly wretched 2011/12. The only win for Edinburgh or Glasgow in the HCup came after the clock had turned red in Glasgow's last Pool game. They lost to Tonga on home soil. In retrospect, the Andy Robinson regime should have ended after Scotland lost in Rome last March and claimed the Wooden Spoon. As it stands, a fresh coaching team may revitalize the players. Never short of a few grizzled forwards, two naturalizations (Tim Visser and Sean Maitland) in the last year make the Scottish back three very exciting. Their issues remain at half-back and midfield where they lack creativity and consistency.
Six Nations High Point: Scotland 15-9 England, 2008. The Scotts love beating the English as much (if not more) than Ireland. 2008 was their last win against the old enemy.
Six Nations Low Point: Scotland 17-37 Italy, 2007. The only team to lose at home to Italy in the Six Nations.
Lions Watch: A player who has only been Scottish for 6 months would be the ultimate bolter, but if anyone has the skills it's Sean Maitland. The newly arrived kiwi has been part of the Crusaders lineup for the past few years and only the production line of outstanding backs has kept him out of an All Blacks shirt.
Wins in 2013: 1
The French had the most successful Autumn of all the Six Nations teams, winning all their games and tearing Australia apart in the process. After retaining much of the team from the World Cup in last years Six Nations, Philipe Saint-Andre has moved his squad on and they look the stronger for it. They don't tend to do well in Twickenham and their Grand Slam may well be derailed there but they remain favorites for the Championship. Given that they have Scotland in Paris in the last match of this years contest, they'll know exactly what the need to do to get over the line.
Six Nations High Point: Difficult to pick a highlight for the team with the most Six Nations titles. The 'mercurial' French are actually the most consistent team over the course of Six Nations history with a 70% win rate.
Six Nations Low Point: Italy 22-21 France, 2011. An embarrassment that the French are always capable of succumbing too.
One to Watch: To most peoples delight Freddie Michalak is back in Le Bleu after his sojourn in SupeRugby with the Sharks. He had a sterling November and is still one of the most exciting out halves in world rugby.
Wins in 2013: 4
2012 was just about par for the Italians. They managed to put serious pressure on England in Rome and got a home win against Scotland. Like the Scotts, they struggle at half back. Coach Jacques Brunel is trying to impose a new style but this seasons fixtures are an uphill battle for Italy. Keeping it tight at home is the best they can hope for.
Six Nations High Point: Italy 22-21 France, 2011. Having only competed with Scotland with any regularity and a solitary win against Wales, Italy earn their biggest scalp to date to lift the Giuseppe Garibaldi Trophy in Nick Mallet's last Six Nations game in Rome.
Six Nations Low Point: England 80-12 Italy, 2001. The Italians first trip to Twickenham since joining the tournament results in the competitions heaviest ever loss.
One to Watch: I'm not revealing any state secrets by saying that Sergio Parisse is the heartbeat of the Italian team. The No. 8 would walk onto almost any Test team in the world. What would England have given for a charismatic talisman like Parisse during their wilderness years post-RWC '03?
Wins in 2013: 0