IT seems like the 2021 Guinness Six Nations has just crept up on us but by close of business on Sunday afternoon three games will have been completed.
Italy against France will kick off proceedings today (2.15pm) and that will be followed by England v Scotland (4.45pm).
Ireland will then conclude round one tomorrow when they lock horns with Wales in Cardiff (3pm).
I can’t see anything but wins for France, England and Ireland but, as we all know sport has a funny way of making mugs of us. And considering the amount of disruption that Covid has cast upon the rugby calendar, only a fool would bet on my predictions.
The rugby world that we all loved and adored is not what it was and every ball that is to be kicked, or opponent that is to be tackled, will be conditional to a very strict set of protocols being upheld and adhered to.
I am finding it hard to believe that all the games will be played as scheduled for this year’s tournament; all we can do is hope and pray that everyone involved acts responsibly and the virus is not allowed infiltrate any of the training camps.
Up to last Tuesday, and apart from one or two long-term injuries, Andy Farrell was looking at a full squad to choose from for Ireland’s opener.
The news that broke during the week that Caelan Doris and Quinn Roux would be ruled out of this game was unfortunate especially for the individuals themselves however, one man’s loss is another man’s gain and for Gavin Coombes and Ryan Baird the phone call from Farrell was very welcome and a deserving bit of news.
The introduction of Paul O’Connell to the Irish coaching ticket seems to be a fantastic move by Farrell and the IRFU, however, the former Munster, Irish, and Lions’ captain still has a bit to go in making the transition from player to coach.
The difference between playing the game and coaching it are worlds apart and just because you were a world-class player, it doesn’t afford you any right to becoming a celebrated coach.
Just look at England’s World Cup winning captain Martin Johnson as an example.
While Johnson was a much-respected leader, on and off the pitch, as a player, he failed miserably as a coach and left his English coaching post under an avalanche of criticism.
Coaching can be a very lonely place and when things don’t go your way, the finger of blame is always directed firmly in the direction of the coach, irrespective of how the players perform on the pitch.
I’m sure O’Connell’s appointment will be a successful one and hopefully he will be able to transfer some of the insatiable principles that he himself operated under.
The first area that O’Connell will be looking at is Ireland’s line-out, especially now that Devon Toner is no longer a part of this squad.
When you have a player, who stands 6’ 10” in his socks you will always have a go-to jumper when the need arises, but now that the Toner option is a thing of the past, O’Connell and his players will need to be a little bit more inventive on how they deliver.
In order to win any game of modern rugby, the two most important facets of the game that you need to be returning a 90% plus favourable rate are the line-out and scrum.
You could have the greatest backline in the world with the most potent of finishers, but if you don’t have the ball to play with all you have is seven chaps who like looking at themselves in the mirror.
Because this is O’Connell’s first full and committed venture into coaching, I can only imagine that the majority of ball that comes from the line-out and scrum will not be that complicated.
The throw will be simple and quick, and the scrum will be solid without looking to dominate and I really hope we don’t see too many scrum re-sets.
Currently, the scrum is taking up way too much time in the game and if World Rugby doesn’t sort it out soon, the game will continue to lose spectators.
Hopefully, Johnny Sexton’s hamstring niggle won’t flare up, albeit, the sooner Farrell starts blooding his replacement with more game time and responsibility, the more likely it will be that Ireland will make it beyond the quarter-finals of a World Cup.
Sexton may be the best option now, but by 2023 he will not be, and his replacement will need to have had enough time in the driving seat if Ireland are going to reach the last four.
Ireland’s adversaries for this game, our lovable Welsh neighbours, are very much going through a transition period themselves and with the long-serving Warren Gatland having handed over the reins to fellow New Zealander Wayne Pivac, the jury is very much hung on his progress to date.
I don’t think you will ever come across a more patriotic and fanatical nation as the Welsh when it comes to their national rugby team and if their results are not tipping the scales in a satisfactory direction, they are not shy about voicing their disgust.
To date, Pivac has returned a 30% win to loss ratio, three wins from 10 outings. While the legions are not audible yet, should his players record another one or two losses, it won’t be too long before the masses on Queen Street in Cardiff city centre to the villages throughout the valleys of the Rhondda will be screaming for heads to roll.
Alun Wyn Jones, who is now the most capped international in history, will once again be tasked with leading his men into battle and while he may not have the same physical impact as he did back in 2006 when he won his first of 143 caps, he is very much their spiritual leader and the players around him would walk barefoot through broken glass for him.
Normally, anytime Ireland and Wales clash it is a 50/50 call as to who will win, but on this occasion and taking into account just how well our provinces are doing in the Guinness Pro 14 league, I would be very surprised if Wales are able to muster up a cohesive performance that will bother Farrell’s charges.
Ireland to win comfortably.