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)

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.

Can Kei Grab Grand Slam?

Kei Nishikori has defeated Andy Murray and marches into the semi-finals of the US Open.

For years the top four was dominated by Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and of course Murray. Every Grand Slam would belong to one of the top four. Nadal’s powers may now be waining but another player has stepped into the breach that being Stan Wawrinka.

Wawrinka has now claimed two Grand Slam titles and is one of the only players in my mind that can rattle undoubtedly the worlds best current player, Djokovic.

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Kei Nishikori shakes hands with Murray following his quarter-final win.

As Wimbledon showed nothing is assured as Milos Raonic made the final to play Andy Murray, the world number six took Andy Murray to two tie breaks and only got broken once in the opening set.

Nishikori though could once again show that the level of the top four is not unattainable, currently 7th in the world he has a golden chance coming into a semi-final against, world number three Wawrinka.

The Japanese number one has already overcome formidable opponents and Wawrinka’s astonishing Grand Slam wins which started in Australia will serve as inspiration for Nishikori.

Kei Nishikori’s win over Andy Murray is one of a large number of shocks recently, Querrey beating Djokovic, Lucas Pouille defeating Nadal, the list goes on, there is no such thing as a foregone conclusion now at the major championships and Opens.

Kei Nishikori has a chance to make history as the first Asian player to win a Grand Slam, Wawrinka will give Nishikori a tough test but Nishikori has beaten players like him before and he certainly looks ready to do it again.

Destiny Beckons for Murray

This year’s Wimbledon has been one of full of shocks especially in the men’s draw with Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic falling in the first week.

Yesterday in the semi-final we saw, the greatest player of his generation Federer also head for the exit doors following a brutal encounter with Raonic who played an absolutely blinding game.

Milos Raonic becomes the first Canadian to play in a Grand Slam final when he takes on the British number one Andy Murray on Centre Court.

Murray has had a very routine tournament so far following a reunion with tennis idol Ivan Lendl prior to his sixth title at Queens. Murray dispatched with former finalist Berdych in straight sets.

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Murray and Berdych share a handshake following Murray’s victory.

The in-form Scot looks destined to win his second title at Wimbledon due to all the biggest challengers Djokovic, Wawrinka, Federer, Nishikori, Cilic all gone without a trace.

Murray is the heavy favourite for tomorrow’s match up but he will be wary of the Canadian and his powerful service game that gave Federer some real problems.

Murray knows how big the stage is for him tomorrow and he also knows for any other match at any other tournament this tie would be routine. He also knows this is a Wimbledon final, he is the overwhelming favourite and he has to perform. That pressure does not make the task easier.

The ball looks to be in Murray’s court, if he can hit the winner remains to be seen.

Can Slammin Sam Win Wimbledon?

Yesterday saw the most dominant tennis player in the world at the moment beaten and well beaten by American Sam Querrey.

It took the challenger just four sets to overpower world number one, Djokovic. The unthinkable became reality. Court One stunned by this thrilling encounter the power of Querrey decimating the invincible, ever present aura of Novak Djokovic.

Of course this strange result leads to British number one Murray becoming the favourite to win at Wimbledon. Of course nothing is guaranteed though and Querrey will have some tough matches ahead if he wants to play in the final including a likely semi-final meeting with third seed Federer.

Querrey has already achieved something few players will ever achieve beating a player at the very top of his game. The 28th seed has some real pedigree and knows how to win on grass having formerly won Queens.

With the second week in Wimbledon secured a tough draw could well see the American crumble but you wouldn’t bet on it having him play Frenchman Nicholas Mahut in the next round.

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Sam Querrey will play Mahut in the fourth round.

Of course the loss of Wawrinka and Djokovic at this early stage could set the scene for the likes of Raonic. Cilic and Nishikori to advance to later stages of the competition than they would be used to.

Querrey will fancy his chances though of at least making the last four if his powerful serving game and forehand can stay at the level they reached to defeat Djokovic. A ;evel that you though would have to drop at some point.

Querrey’s victory comes on a year that has seen underdogs excel, Leicester City won the Premier League, Wales are in the semi-finals of the Euro’s and England rugby won a series in Australia.

A fantastic year of sport would be fittingly capped off if the American can work his way into the most prestigious of finals.

Likely Lions

With approximately a year to go until the Lions tour New Zealand I analyse my XV that I would have if the first test were to be played tomorrow. Following English and Scottish test series wins and Ireland’s victory in their first test, the northern hemisphere looks to be recovering from the World Cup.

  1. Mako Vunipola

It has to be the English prop. Jack McGrath is very close behind. The Saracens man has a hugely improved scrummaging game and his work in the loose is wonderful. This man carries as much as and makes as many tackles as any back row. Streets ahead of any of his home nation compatriots.

2. Dylan Hartley (Captain)

The England skipper has led England to nine wins in nine games. His abrasive nature and dogged determination make him a hugely influential player. He has to go and he has to go as captain. He has tempered the fiery nature that saw him pick up 54 weeks worth of bans and has become a totem of self control and power. He leads from the front and he won’t be found wanting in the desire category either. Does his bread and butter of the set piece to perfection.

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Dylan Hartley winning the Calcutta Cup.

3. WP Nel

Nel is a hugely important part of Scotland’s scrum as well as being a key defensive cog in Scotland and Edinburgh’s systems. Dan Cole is very close to the South African born prop. The scrum will be key in New Zealand and Nel is possibly the best scrummaging tighthead in the world.

4. Maro Itoje

Anyone who thinks Itoje should not go on tour with the Lions must have been living under a rock for the last year. The Saracens lock is fast, strong and in form. His work over the park in the loose is wonderful. He is so talented he has become one of the best in is position in the world and just thinking about him matching up against Retallick is a mouth watering battle.

5. Alun Wyn Jones

Jones gets in due to the contribution he can give in terms of experience. He is a physical player and will add another lineout option for the Lions. Jones is one a very few Wales players that has played well in New Zealand. Kruis, Toner and both the Gray brothers aren’t far away.

6. Chris Robshaw

The Harlequins man has been redeemed well and truly since Eddie Jones took over, the best blindside England have had for years. His tackle rate and the amount of work he gets through is monumental. Lydiate is close but after this man’s performance in Australia he is impossible to leave out. England now have one of the finest back rows in the world and Chris Robshaw is a huge part of that.

7. James Haskell

The Wasps man is the man of the series despite only playing in two of the tests in Australia. Led on a path of redemption by Eddie Jones, he has come to the forefront. He is a fighter, he has eclipsed Warburton this year. One of England’s top performers in the Six Nations as well, he is well and truly nailed on to start on the Lions openside flank.

8. Billy Vunipola

The eight has been up there with the best this year. It seems as though he is finally becoming the player we always knew he could be. Another powerful ball carrying forward and a man that can go toe to toe with Read. Vunipola powers over players but contrary to popular belief has a bit of speed to himself as well. Faletau isn’t far away.

9. Rhys Webb

Webb is electric, his pace and sniping breaks make him the frontrunner for the ‘9’ jersey, he has a pass too. Webb has been one of Wales’ stars for the last couple of years and has inspired Wales to a few massive wins lately. Youngs’ kicking is superior but Webb just nicks it.

10. George Ford

Only one player could displace this player at the moment however he’s at 12 but we’ll talk about him later. Ford’s game management is becoming superior to any other player. His decision making is growing as well. The Bath fly-half has been among England’s top performers in Australia and his tackle counts would suggest his defensive frailties are no longer such a concern.

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Ford is back to his best for England.

11. Liam Williams

The Welsh winger had to be included after his performances against the All Blacks he terrorised Fekitoa in the first test, he could not be stopped, he tore through at pace. His abrasive edge and pace make him a lethal weapon in the wide channels. Would have had him at fullback but a certain Scotsman has that nailed down.

12. Owen Farrell

The Saracens centre is the best fly-half in the northern hemisphere, only problem with that is he’s also the best inside centre in the northern hemisphere. He works miracles for England here with Ford inside him. He is the best goal kicker in the world, that makes him priceless at international level. He is also a hugely influential defender, his desire is huge and his appetite to be the best is insatiable.

13. Robbie Henshaw

Could just as easily be Joseph but Henshaw’s power is important if we don’t have a powerful carrier at 12 we need one at 13. Henshaw is a hugely important player for Ireland and if given space by the two English playmakers inside him he will be given acres of space to wreak havoc in New Zealand. His defensive capabilities also make him important, defence will be key against the All Blacks.lions logo.png

14. Anthony Watson

Deadly, lethal two words that perfectly describe the Bath flyer. His feet are electric and his pace scintillating. He is also very capable under the high ball and he uses this to his advantage leaping up for cross field kicks which will be implemented due to his club mate Ford is being deployed at 10. Watson can score at will and he will score tries down under.

15. Stuart Hogg

Jared Payne unlucky to miss out but the fullback is truly sensational, his speed makes him an asset to any team he plays for. Hogg is one of the most exciting fullbacks in the world, he attacks with verve and pace. The Six Nations player of the championship is going to be a massively important man for the Lions should he play.

So the player count is hugely skewed in England’s favour but surely after the Grand Slam and Australia series that is justified. England have nine players, Wales have three, Scotland two and Ireland just one.  Let’s just hope whoever is named can produce the result we got in 2013 in Australia.

Six Nations 2016 Team of the Tournament

So England have won the Grand Slam, an excellent achievement for Eddie Jones’ side winning the championship at the first time of asking. So which players impressed during the course of the tournament.

  1. Rob Evans (Wales)

Really powerful in the scrummage, made life hard for all opposition tightheads he faced. He is one of the reasons the Welsh scrum was so good, Gethin Jenkins is not missed.

2nd Choice: Joe Marler (England)

2. Dylan Hartley (England)

The English captain has led excellently, awesome in the tight making England’s set piece impenetrable. Always happy to take on the ball himself, a real leader.

2nd Choice: Guihelm Guirado (France)

3. WP Nel (Scotland)

The adopted South African has become a hero for Scotland, a scrummaging powerhouse and a rock in defence.

2nd Choice: Dan Cole (England)

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Nel in action for Edinburgh against Ulster in this year’s Pro12.

4. Maro Itoje (England)

A star has most certainly been born. Athletic, quick, strong the Saracens second row will be an England star for years to come.

2nd Choice: Richie Gray (Scotland)

5. Jonny Gray (Scotland)

The young Scot is on of the reasons for the rejuvenated Scotland side that have impressed over the course of the Six Nations.

2nd Choice: George Kruis (England)

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CJ Stander on one of his trademark carries.

6. CJ Stander (Ireland)

The Munster flanker’s carrying has been one of the best things about Ireland’s ultimately disappointing campaign.

2nd Choice: Chris Robshaw (England)

7. James Haskell (England)

He has proved himself after the World Cup where the back row came in for criticism but it looks as though Jones is forging a back row capable of competing with the best in the world.

2nd Choice: John Hardie (Scotland)

8. Billy Vunipola (England)

Undoubtedly the best eight, possibly the best player in the championship. Powerful and abrasive for England. So hard to stop.

2nd Choice: Taulupe Faletau (Wales)

9. Greig Laidlaw (Scotland)

Kicked well for his team and led from the front. Laidlaw had his critics but he has been a key cog in the Scotland team.

2nd Choice: Gareth Davies (Wales)

10. Dan Biggar (Wales)

The fly-half has been absolutely sublime this championship, his attack has been wonderful and he has become one of the leaders in the Welsh team. Bigger is also now among the best fly-halves in the world.

2nd Choice: Johnny Sexton (Ireland)

11. Jack Nowell (England)

Called slow on many occasions by his critics but has been one of England’s strong wingers over the course of the championship.

2nd Choice: Tim Visser (Scotland)

12. Jamie Roberts (Wales)

The Harlequins centre has been hugely influential for his side over the course of the championship. His power has played a huge part in Wales’ fairly successful last four years.

2nd Choice: Alex Dunbar (Scotland)

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Campagnaro on the charge for Exeter.

13. Michele Campagnaro (Italy)

The centre is up there on the defenders beaten chart and metres made charts. His upper body strength is something to marvel at.

2nd Choice: Duncan Taylor (Scotland)

14. George North (Wales)

He is bang back in form. Need I say more.

2nd Choice: Anthony Watson (England)

15. Stuart Hogg (Scotland)

The best attacking fullback in the northern hemisphere, his pace is unbelievable and he has one hand firmly on the Lions 15 jersey.

2nd Choice: Mike Brown (England)

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Stuart Hogg in action for Scotland.