And so it begins!!! The tournament that we anticipate more than any other is finally about to get underway. After the empty stadiums of the past two years, the crowds are back and will add that critical 16th man element to every home team as well as all the color and festive atmosphere the tournament has lacked courtesy of the pandemic. Covid is still likely to throw all the teams the odd curveball throughout the tournament, but with the World Cup only 18 months away and all six teams looking in fine fettle, this is likely to be a tournament to remember for many a year to come.
Ireland and Wales get us underway this Saturday, in wet and blustery conditions at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Ireland are one of the favorites to lift the trophy on March 19th, while defending champions Wales’ luck seems to have run out before the tournament has even started. But as everyone knows in recent years this is a tournament, that perhaps with the exception of Italy, the form book seems not to respect. In short, anything can happen on the day and while Ireland look an incredibly daunting prospect especially at home, to write off Wales’ before the opening whistle would be not only disrespectful but rather foolish to say the least. Wales got the better of Ireland last year in Cardiff in a hard fought encounter, and despite the conditions on Saturday expect no less in Dublin as both teams have everything to prove.
So here’s what got us talking ahead of this critical opening fixture for both sides.
The Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Everyone who has read this blog, knows that we think Ireland’s front row stocks of Andrew Porter, Ronan Kelleher and Tadgh Furlong are the benchmark by which all other teams will have to measure themselves against this Six Nations. They have arguably the world’s best Tighthead prop in Tadgh Furlong. On the opposite side the highly versatile Andrew Porter who can cover both Loosehead and Tighthead, is a wrecking ball of note. Add into the mix Ronan Kelleher who is probably one of the fastest and most destructive Hookers in the modern game and Ireland have it all going on up front. The only mild concern is Kelleher’s lineout throwing but it certainly looked like it had come on leaps and bounds during the November series and we’d argue Wales’ Ryan Elias has much more to worry about in that regard. Their bench are no slackers either but more on that in a minute. Wales are going to really struggle to compete with these three, especially in inclement weather. Expect Ireland to build a dominant platform up front that takes no prisoners and dictates the tone of the match from the outset.
Ireland‘s wealth of forward riches now extend to the front row
There is no doubt that incumbent Ronan Kelleher earned his stripes in 2021 to make him Irish Coach Andy Farrell’s first choice Hooker. However, if you’ve watched Leinster this season in the URC, young Dan Sheehan has been tearing up pitches wherever he goes. Boasting a skill set just as good as Kelleher’s, albeit with a slightly different approach to how he plays the position, Sheehan has been a revelation at Leinster. As a result we are delighted to see him get a spot on the bench for Ireland’s Six Nations opener. Ireland lose nothing other than experience by bringing him off the bench, and with an eye to the World Cup just around the corner, getting Sheehan some serious game time over the coming weeks will really strengthen Ireland’s depth and options in such a crucial position.
A crucial back row axis that despite missing some traditional firepower could well be Wales’ salvation
If you’re going to be even remotely competitive against Ireland, then the battles in the back row will be key. Lack firepower here and it will be all over but for the crying. While Wales are reeling from an injury list from hell in their back row stocks, it is definitely made up for in the shape of Ellis Jenkins and Taine Basham. Jenkins returned after two years out from a horrific injury to be Wales’ most impressive performer of their November campaign. Meanwhile, newcomer Taine Basham lived up to all the hype surrounding him. The two flankers will be up against it as they wrestle to keep Ireland’s Caelan Doris and Josh van der Flier in check, but we fully expect to see them make a decent fist of it. Without question the battles fought in this part of the park will be the most important indicator of how Wales will fare in this match. If these two can slow down that powerhouse Irish back row and create some go forward ball of their own, then all of a sudden the bookmakers may have to start retooling their betting odds.
Just one of the many reasons that Ireland’s future looks so bright
One thing Ireland has become very, very good at in recent years is churning out a seemingly endless stream of world class back rowers. Caelan Doris is just one more recent example, but he could well end up becoming Ireland’s most important player this tournament. Alongside the fleet footed Josh van der Flier who is back to his very best, Doris took the rugby public by storm last year. Highly mobile, dynamic in the rucks and mauls and seemingly impossible to bring down, expect to see Doris featuring heavily in the highlights of Ireland’s exploits in the coming weeks. Alongside van der Flier and the remarkable Jack Conan, Doris could make it an exceptionally long and painful day at the office for the Welsh as this is an Irish back row that could prove next to impossible to contain.
Two Captains who suffer no illusions as to what’s at stake
Your heart has to go out to this year’s Welsh Captain Dan Biggar. How do you possibly step into the shoes of a persona as large as injured Welsh Captain and talisman Alun Wyn Jones? While Ireland struggles with the Sexton succession question, for now they know they simply can’t do without him. Fortunately for Ireland Coach Andy Farrell, Sexton’s recent form has proven that the wily veteran is still at the top of his game. If Biggar can figure out what some of the rabbits Sexton is likely to pull out his rather large hat might look like, he will be able to keep Wales in the match. However, in the conditions likely to plague the Aviva on Saturday afternoon your money has to be with Ireland’s man for all seasons. Like many of the matchups over the coming weeks, the battle of the fly halves will determine the outcome of this Six Nations and Saturday’s encounter in Dublin is a case in point. While every game is key in this tournament, your opener is arguably the most important in the competition. At this stage it’s a level playing field for everyone and how you succeed or fail in Round 1 can often set the tone for how the rest of your campaign will play out and how your opponents perceive you in terms of their own planning.
Conditions in Dublin on Saturday will mean that this contest will most likely be a war of attrition in the trenches amongst the forwards. It’s unlikely that we will see the speed and grace of Welsh winger Louis Rees-Zammit or the weaving runs of new Irish sensation and debutant Mack Hansen. As a result if that is the case it’s hard not to tip your hat in favor of the Irish for this one. Allied to Sexton’s game management Ireland are probably the better equipped side to manage such a slugfest. Either way, as an opener to the glorious festival of rugby we are about to indulge in over the coming weeks we couldn’t ask for better!