Six Nations Preview: Ireland

Head Coach: Joe Schmidt

Stadium: Aviva Stadium (Capacity: 51,700)

Captain: Rory Best

IRB World Ranking: 4th

Last Season: 3rd

Prediction: 2nd

Ireland had a fairly average tournament by their high standards last season finishing behind England and Wales.

Ireland had an outstanding autumn which started with a historic victory over the All Blacks in Chicago, and although they were beaten by New Zealand two weeks after that, the result is a significant one.

They also managed a win over Australia and thrashed Canada in their other two internationals over the course of November.

The pack was outstanding, tireless defence with pace and aggression was the foundations for the win in Chicago. The set piece is also a very strong part of the Irish game.

Ireland do look well ahead of many of their opponents with England looking like the only other realistic title contender after strong years for both sides.

In the forwards CJ Stander just keeps improving, his defence is powerful and his attacking runs are extremely important, puncturing holes round the fringes, making the hard yards for his club or country.henshae

Robbie Henshaw is well and truly in control of the Lions midfield as we head towards the Six Nations. The centre is a proper centre, strong on the ball and a distributor able to open up space for his dangerous wide men.

Ireland only have two home games but they have the massive advantage of playing England in Dublin, that is a hugely beneficial result for Ireland. The trips to Cardiff, Edinburgh and Rome should not pose too much of a challenge.

Ireland will feel they can win this tournament and Joe Schmidt will be targeting a Grand Slam, the game against England will likely be a tournament showdown to decide the champion what a wonderful way that would be for Ireland to cap a truly outstanding year. South Africa, defeated, New Zealand defeated, Australia, defeated, England, maybe.

Fixtures

v Scotland, BT Murrayfield, 14:25, Saturday 4th February

v Italy, Stadio Olimpico, 14:25, Saturday 11th February

v France, Aviva Stadium, 16:50, Saturday 25th February

v Wales, Principality Stadium, 20:05, Friday 10th March

v England, Aviva Stadium, 17:00, Saturday 18th March

My Ireland XV

1 Jack McGrath (Leinster) 2 Rory Best (Captain, Ulster) 3 Tadhg Furlong (Leinster) 4 Iain Henderson (Ulster) 5 Devin Toner (Leinster) 6 CJ Stander (Munster) 7 Sean O’Brien (Leinster) 8 Jamie Heaslip (Leinster)

9 Conor Murray (Munster) 10 Jonny Sexton (Leinster) 11 Andrew Trimble (Ulster) 12 Robbie Henshaw (Leinster) 13 Jared Payne (Ulster) 14 Simon Zebo (Munster) 15 Rob Kearney (Leinster)

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Likely Lads for 2017 Tour

So, Warren Gatland will lead the British and Irish Lions for a second time following his series win over Australia in 2013.

Across the four nations, debates are being had and one of those debates is who should captain this team? There are only two contenders really either Cardiff back rower Sam Warburton or Grand Slam winning captain Dylan Hartley.

Hartley has to skipper the Lions, he recently led his England side to a 3-0 win over Australia as for Warburton he failed to tour due to injury.

I think it is fairly widely assumed Eddie Jones’ all conquering England squad will dominate the 34 man squad that is due to be announced towards the end of the season.

France based players is another contentious issue due to the fact the French season finishes comparatively late it is unlikely some players will be able to join up with the squad at the right time. This therefore means some France based players could effectively miss out on selection.

Head coach of Wales Warren Gatland celebrates after beating Ireland in their Six Nations rugby match at Croke Park in Dublin

Gatland will lead the Lions in New Zealand.

New Zealand is the pinnacle, a series win over the All Blacks is going to take something seriously special, you could even argue miraculous.

These are the 34 players I think could maybe win that series.

Props: Dan Cole, Joe Marler (both England), Jack McGrath (Ireland), WP Nel (Scotland), Mako Vunipola (England)

Hookers: Rory Best (Ireland), Jamie George, Dylan Hartley (Captain, both England)

Locks: Jonny Gray (Scotland), Iain Henderson (Ireland), Maro Itoje (England), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), George Kruis (England)

Flankers: John Hardie (Scotland), James Haskell (England), CJ Stander (Ireland), Sam Warburton (Wales)

Number Eights: Taulupe Faletau (Wales), Billy Vunipola (England)

Scrum-Halves: Conor Murray (Ireland), Rhys Webb (Wales), Ben Youngs (England)

Fly-Halves: Dan Biggar (Wales), Owen Farrell, George Ford (both England)

Centres: Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), Jonathan Joseph (England), Jamie Roberts (Wales), Duncan Taylor (Scotland)

Wings: Jack Nowell (England), Tommy Seymour (Scotland), Anthony Watson (England)

Fullbacks: Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Liam Williams (Wales)

Squad by Nation

England: 15

Ireland: 6

Scotland: 6

Wales: 7

That is my pick but with a year to play plenty of time for players to play their way in or out of Gatland’s plans.

Watford Preview

Manager: Quique Flores
Stadium: Vicarage Road
Captain: Troy Deeney
Top Scorer: Troy Deeney (21)

Watford have achieved promotion and congratulations to the north London club however staying up could be a real challenge and they’ll be hoping the likes of Deeney and Forestieri can continue to keep Watford picking up the points.

Watford in ecstasy having won promotion to England's top flight.

Watford in ecstasy having won promotion to England’s top flight.

Watford had an excellent start to the season only losing 2 games up until the 4th November these included an impressive 3-0 demolition of Bolton and 4-1 thumping of Leeds United. October and September saw Watford tear the rule books up and find themselves in the promotion race before Christmas that was until November having started the month in pole position they then lost 4 games in a row and with that slipped 6 places to 7th in the league their lowest position in the league bar week 2 when they were in 12th. Following that run they produced a wonderful display away agains former Premiership boys Fulham and ran riot winning 5-0 at Craven Cottage. This result was huge coup for the Londoners and gave them some real thrust heading into the new year and was a relief for the fans after the horror show of November. They closed out the year with an impressive 4-2 win in Cardiff.

January was a big month for Watford and saw some incredible results they smashed Charlton 5-0 at Vicarage Road then 7 days later would hammer Blackpool 7-2. That was huge for the club 2 massive wins over formidable opposition. This saw Watford once again launch an assault on the upper reaches of the table and automatic promotion to England’s top flight. Following the thrashing of Blackpool the club would only lose 3 more games that season 2 of them to their fellow promoted clubs Bournemouth and Norwich. Ipswich claiming the final win over Watford. A 6 game unbeaten streak through the end of February and the majority of March was enough to give Watford the points they needed to burst up the table and send shockwaves through the Championship. This preceded their final loss of the season as they then finished the season with a 7 game unbeaten streak to finish 2nd in the table just behind the brilliant Bournemouth.

Watford had a style of play that many found enticing to watch and with players like captain Troy Deeney and Italian striker Forestieri up front the way they were scoring was quite incredible summed up by the club managing to bang in 5+ goals in three games. They scored 91 over the course of the season with only Bournemouth scoring more. Hopefully having a more settled coach will make Watford even more deadly this season having had 4 coaches last season before the 8th October. They will be a joy to watch if they can string together some wins and don’t over complicate things.

Their skipper and striker Deeney is certainly the key man at Vicarage Road and will hope continue his form that made him such an asset last season. His finishing ability is quite something and that led to him scoring a quite astonishing 21 goals for the club last season in all competitions. Deeney’s eye for goal makes him quite an asset however if the striker continues this upward curve it is hard to see Watford keeping hold of him should the heavyweights come knocking in January. One thing is for sure Watford will hope he can once again be the difference for them as he was so many times last season.

Troy Deeney celebrates a goal against Brighton on last years opening day.

Troy Deeney celebrates a goal against Brighton on last years opening day.

Recruitment has been a large part of the club’s summer bringing in 11 new faces to try an help the club remain in the Premier League. They’ve also cut loose 5 players to try and shift some of the supposed ‘deadwood’ that were deemed surplus to requirements. The signing that really catches my eye is that of Vydra, an extremely potent finisher and quite a coup for he new boys. He is a much coveted striker and Flores will be keen to show off his shiny new man. They have also brought in former Spurs man Capoue a very experienced midfielder that they can build around a man that will bring priceless knowledge to a squad short of Premier League know-how. Juanfran is also an exciting prospect for Watford to bring in a playmaker from La Liga club Real Betis. He could be a huge player for the club over the coming months. Behrami the Switzerland and former West Ham player also brings that Premier League knowledge to the table and could be influential in Watford’s bid to stay up.

Hydra could be key to Watford's season.

Hydra could be key to Watford’s season.

No really influential figures leave Vicarage Road this summer just a few players that were barely holding on to a spot in the squad, Watford should not miss these departures.

IN: Matej Vydra (Udinese, Undisclosed)
Valon Behrami (Hamburger SV, Undisclosed)
Étienne Capoue (Tottenham Hotspur, Undisclosed)
Juanfran (Real Betis, £1.5 million)
Steven Berghuis (AZ, £4.6 million)
Allan Nyom (Udinese, Undisclosed)
Miguel Britos (Napoli, Free)
Giedrius Arlauskis (Steaua Bucuresti, Free)
Sebastian Prödl (Werder Bremen, Free)
José Holebas (Roma, Undisclosed)
José Manuel Jurado (Spartak Moscow, Undislclosed)

OUT: Jonathan Bond (Reading, Undisclosed)
Lewis McGugan (Sheffield Wednesday, Undisclosed)
Marco Motta (Free Agents, Free)
Luke O’Nien (Free Agents, Free)
Vujadin Savic (Free Agents, Free)

Watford will hope for consistency this season and with a few wins they might stay up it’s going to be tight at the bottom.

My Watford XI (4-4-1-1): 1 H.Gomes; 2 A.Nyom 15 C.Cathcart 25 J.Holebas 5 S.Prödl; 19 M.Layún 8 V.Behrami 29 É.Capoue 21 I.Anya; 10 M.Vyrdra; 9 T.Deeney

Bench: 13 R.Gilmartin 3 M.Britos 14 J.Paredes 23 B.Watson 7 J.Jurado 24 O.Ighalo 11 F.Forestieri

Last Season: Championship Runners-Up
Prediction: 19th (Relegated)

Bournemouth Preview

Manager: Eddie Howe

Stadium: Dean Court

Captain: Tommy Elphick

Top Scorer: Callum Wilson (23)

Bournemouth were outstanding last season and played a good brand of entertaining, attacking football that was a delight to watch and with finishers like Kermorgant and Wilson in their ranks goals were not hard to come by. Bournemouth continued their meteoric rise from obscurity last season, it being only their second year in English football’s second tier they dispatched of all opposition to take the title at a canter and bring them the season in the Premier League they longed for. A stunning run from 28th February saw them go 13 games unbeaten until the end of the season beating some tough opposition in the process including hammering Fulham 5-1 at Craven Cottage and a 3-0 win over Middlesborough at Dean Court.

Bournemouth celebrate winning the Sky Bet Championship.

Bournemouth celebrate winning the Sky Bet Championship.

The Cherries looked red hot in that final run and racked up 90 points over the course of the season scoring 98 goals in the process making them one of the most deadly teams in the football league. This form is bound to be a lot harder to come by against Premier League opposition but if the likes of Ritchie and Atsu can supply Bournemouth’s forwards with enough ball in front of goal they should score enough goals to keep them away from a relegation scrap. An impressive League Cup run also saw some impressive displays such as the 2-1 win over West Bromwich Albion in the 4th round and the 3-0 demolition of Cardiff in the Welsh capital in the 3rd round. Liverpool ended Bournemouth’s cup run but many fans from all over the country will still have been hugely impressed by displays put in before Christmas by Bournemouth. So many players impressed last season none so more than former Swindon midfielder Matt Ritchie. The Scottish international was key to Bournemouth all over the pitch last season scoring goals as well as providing the strikers which is shown with his 15 goals from 46 appearances in the league from Ritchie last season. His impressive form for Bournemouth earn him the international call-up in March of this year to play against Northern Ireland and Gibraltar. If Bournemouth are to stay up Matt Ritchie will have to be at his best come August.

Matt Ritchie celebrates scoring against Derby County.

Matt Ritchie celebrates scoring against Derby County.

As is to be expected from a promoted club Bournemouth have had a busy summer in the transfer market. They have brought in five players whilst offloading eight players over the summer. Bournemouth have also brought in quality players like Boruc, Mings and King all likely to play a large part and considering Howe had to fork out £8 million for defender Mings plus loan out Ryan Fraser to Ipswich for the season he must be expecting to play Mings in some sort of role. Bringing in Boruc and Distin adds Premier League experience to a side distinctly lacking in that area.

Former Ipswich defender Tyrone Mings in action.

Former Ipswich defender Tyrone Mings in action.

They have lost a lot of the ‘deadwood’ from their squad mostly through releasing the players from their contracts the only standout name on the exodus in Pitman who leaves Dean Court to join Ipswich Town. With the recruitment of King and loan deal for Chelsea winger Atsu it looked unlikely that Pitman would play much in the Premier League anyway due to the riches Bournemouth have at their disposal looking to next season.

IN: Artur Boruc (Southampton, Free) Sylvain Distin (Everton, Free) Adam Federici (Reading, Free) Joshua King (Blackburn Rovers, Free) Tyrone Mings (Ipswich Town, £8 million + Ryan Fraser loan deal)

OUT: Brett Pitman (Ipswich Town, Undisclosed) Joe Partington (Eastleigh, Free) Josh McQuoid (Luton Town, Free) Mohamed Colibaly (Racing Santander, Free) Miles Addison (Free Agent, Free) Ian Harte (Free Agent, Free) Darryl Flahavan (Free Agent, Free) Benjamin Büchel (Free Agent, Free) Bournemouth statistically have the best chance of staying up out of the promoted sides and looking at their squad it looks like they will be staying up so long as they play the way they did last year. It’s shaping up to be tough yet enjoyable season for Bournemouth players and fans alike.

My Bournemouth XI (4-4-2) 1 A.Boruc; 15 A.Smith 5 T.Elphick (C) 3 S.Cook 14 T.Mings; 30 M.Ritchie 4 D.Gosling 8 H.Arter 20 C.Atsu 13 C.Wilson 17 J.King

Bench: 23 A.Federici 25 S.Distin 11 C.Daniels 19 J.Stanislas 6 A.Surman 9 T.Rantie 18 Y.Kermorgant Last Season: Championship Winners Prediction: 17th

The ‘French’ Way

France, a nation that prides themselves on having that little bit of class, a certain ‘je ne sais quoi.’ A nation that in sport brings the flair, the dazzling beauty, the spectacular piece of skill that oozes not just class but astounding physical beauty and makes any other wondrous moment seem so insignificant. Players from both rugby and football have shown us this outrageous talent for coming up with the showstopping brilliance when it matters.

In rugby France have always been the unpredictable yet brilliant to watch team. They bring an air of confidence that if they play well they can beat any challengers. This was shown at it’s best in the 2007 World Cup, a warm night in Cardiff, the hosts France having been close to their best for most of the tournament come up against the overwhelming favourites a team that had blown away all comers in their pool and blessed by the boot of the mercurial Dan Carter.. and all of a sudden that’s it Carter limps off. France win.

New Zealand fly-half, Dan Carter.

New Zealand fly-half, Dan Carter.

They have a knack for producing the big moments when it matters most, this happened 4 years later. It’s 2011, New Zealand are on home soil, but this time France meet England once again at the quarter-final stage. The Auckland air is humid and France having scraped through the pool after a horrific display against Tonga face an England team that have failed to dazzle yet have scored tries. And from nowhere France produce a stunning product, that is high on power and pace with that little electricity that courses through the veins of a Frenchman, that French way, that touch of Parisian class, that hint of French devil, that one thing that makes France French. France win.

England look dejected after losing to France in World Cup quarter-final.

England look dejected after losing to France in World Cup quarter-final.

France are without doubt one of the most talented teams in the world, they have players that make you stop and take a breath, they make your heart skip that beat, they make you fall in love with the game. Gaël Fickou showed this exact moment that player took charge in the 2014 Six Nations. England come into the game with every hope of snatching a win in France. France are low on confidence after a bruising autumn and there a huge question marks over the suitability of former Sale coach Saint-André. England lead going into the final minute, Saint-André’s last roll of the dice is to throw on the young Toulouse centre. Fickou gets the ball and then it comes as if divine intervention has sparked inside the young back, he skips past defenders leaving the English grasping at air. He glides through the defence with an aura of self belief and the glamour that you see on a fashion runway. He turns past the last defender then comes the roar of the Parisian crowd as the centre ends the game with a flourish of French ability and with such French swagger as all England do is watch the jaw dropping, mindblowing talent. France win.

Gaël Fickou scores match winning try against England.

Gaël Fickou scores match winning try against England.

This year France have had a torrid time after beating Australia things were looking up that was until a week later where Argentina bludgeoned them to win 18-14. France came into the Six Nations and can only manage wins against an ageing Italy and a very weak Scotland. France have always performed in World Cups and that showed 4 years ago in Auckland when they beat England and in the final when they lost 8-7 to hosts New Zealand in a game that they should have really won. The chips are well and truly down for France as they travel to England in September, their backs are up against the wall and once again Saint-André has failed to select the 3 Maxime’s (Machenaud, Mermoz, Médard.) France though have a chance, we know that, we know what they can produce, that fantasy land of daring, that paradise of beauty, that state of untouchable glory. If the French can play like France then they have every chance of winning the 2015 World Cup.

France head coach Phillipe Saint-André has come in for criticism over his selection.

France head coach Phillipe Saint-André has come in for criticism over his selection.

My France XV (assuming all are fit and selected):
1 Vincent Debaty (Clermont Auvergne) 2 Guilhem Guirado (Toulon) 3 Eddy Ben Arous (Racing Metro) 4 Yoann Maestri (Toulouse) 5 Alexandre Flanquart (Stade Français) 6 Thierry Dusuatoir (Captain, Toulouse) 7 Fulgence Ourdraogo (Montpellier) 8 Louis Picamoles (Toulouse)

9 Morgan Parra (Clermont Auvergne) 10 François Trinh-Duc (Montpellier) 11 Teddy Thomas (Racing Metro) 12 Wesley Fofana (Clermont Auvergne) 13 Gaël Fickou (Toulouse) 14 Yoann Huget (Toulouse) 15 Maxime Médard (Toulouse)