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)

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.

nishikori

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.

Novak’s Slump Looks Over

Novak Djokovic is the best player in the world right now, undoubtedly. Since his victory in Paris though the Serb has endured a slump.

His loss in the first week of Wimbledon to Sam Querrey then losing in the round of 64 in Rio de Janeiro to Juan Martin Del Potro looked to possibly turn sour what had been a wonderful year for the world number one.

His victory over France’s Jo-Wilfred Tsonga takes him into a semi-final meeting with Gael Monfils later this week.

NOVAK.jpg

Djokovic is playing well.

Djokovic is by no means guaranteed to win that match as Wimbledon at the Olympic Games proved he is not the invincible player we thought we witnessed at Roland Garros as he took apart Andy Murray with ease.

This US Open has already provided us with what looks to be the end for former world number one Rafael Nadal and one of the most iconic players of a generation, one of the most exciting players of the modern era.

Djokovic will hope to not fade like the Spaniard as he pushes for his 13th Grand Slam title at Flushing Meadows.

His emphatic quarter-final win shows us just how good he can be, form is temporary, class is permanent. And Djokovic has proved just how classy he can be.

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.

MURRAY

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.

Are Nadal’s Days Numbered?

As tennis fans will know this era has seen one of the greatest rivalries of all time between the Swiss legend Roger Federer and the equally remarkable Spaniard Nadal.

Rafael Nadal powers have been waining over the last few years compounded by early exits from Wimbledon and not being able to win the 2015 French Open.

This year he has seen a resurgence and a return to the top four which 12 months ago would have been a dream for Nadal. His good clay season had not gone unnoticed until injury forced him to pull out of the French Open, even though the final look destined to be  Nadal-Djokovic showdown.

RAFA

Rafa Nadal will not play at Wimbledon due to a wrist problem.

Nadal’s injury has struggled so much with the injury sustained in Paris that that very same injury has seen him pull out of Wimbledon. The penultimate major of the year and could be crucial to the race to the play in the ATP Finals later this year following the conclusion of the US Open.

Nadal’s struggle with form does look to be in the past, but every time a player suffers an injury they are never quite the same player they were when they come back. Should the world number four’s most recent injury see a dip in his form is Nadal prepared to not be part of that elite group that rule the roost of men’s tennis and have done for years?

The rivalry that Nadal has between himself and Federer and also some of the epic battles he has endured against Djokovic and Murray will always be etched in our memories but it looks as though 2016 could the year we finally lose one of the greatest of all time.

Unstoppable Djokovic Claims French Crown

The Serbian champions has finally lifted the title that’s eluded him for so long, heartbreak against Wawrinka last year seemed to lift him this year. He has been unplayable for large parts of the year and Murray was shown this yesterday.

The British number one was sensational in the first set and pinned the world number one back with a powerful forehand defensive game. The second set was the complete reverse as Djokovic settled into his natural game.

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 16.00.07

Djokovic after winning the French Open for the first time in his career.

The Serb has a frighteningly quick stroke speed, something which Murray found hard to contain on the clay. A sublime performance at the net whilst also driving the Brit further and further behind the baseline let Djokovic own the court.

Murray is among the quickest players in the ATP tour but no amount of pace over the court was going to stop Djokovic powering to claim his first Roland Garros title.

For the neutral it was a wonderful performance from Djokovic and although Murray won the first set there was no denying that the Serb deserved the victory.

As we head towards the grass season it poses the question, who if anyone will stop Djokovic? Wimbledon looks to be a fascinating major to end the season on and there is one clear favourite of course.

If Djokovic keeps this level of his game up there will be no stopping him when the tennis world descends on London this summer.

Why Wawrinka Can Win Wimbledon

We have broken the Wimbledon men’s singles into the final 8, in that final 8 are the top 4 players with Djokovic, Murray, Federer and Wawrinka all playing tomorrow.

Wawrinka may be 4th in the world but with a French Open victory under his belt and that ability to rattle the best tennis player over the last 3 years which is undoubtedly the Serb, Novak Djokovic he has a real chance of winning his 1st Wimbledon title. Yes, grass is very different to the hard courts and clay that Wawrinka has won major titles on before but the grass doesn’t seem to be bothering the Swiss player so far this year. Djokovic and Murray both have been put under huge amounts of pressure.

Novak Djokovic after winning Wimbledon last year.

Novak Djokovic after winning Wimbledon last year.

Murray’s game against Italian Seppi was looking a very different game before the medical break taken by Murray after he lost 6 games in a row following Seppi’s earlier time-out. Djokovic was rattled by Kevin Anderson in his 4th round tie and looks like he could face some stiff competition if he does come up against Wawrinka in the semi-final.

The only other top player that hasn’t been rattled is his countryman and the greatest tennis player of his generation Roger Federer whose grace and air of authority make him a pleasure to watch every time he takes to the courts especially at Wimbledon a place that he loves and the crowds paying him back with a huge amount of support. John McEnroe said that wherever Federer goes it must be “like he’s in front of a home crowd.” Not a surprise when you see the mild mannered, polite gentleman talk to the media.

Federer practising during the 2012 Olympics.

Federer practising during the 2012 Olympics.

Wawrinka will fancy his chances and back himself to beat Djokovic again if he gets the chance, who’s to say they will both make the semi-finals. Nothing is guaranteed that is something we’ve certainly seen so far this year with the women’s draw as Jelena Jankovic knocked out holder Kvitova and Nadal being beaten in the second round.

Wawrinka is destined for greatness his win in Melbourne last year was the start of a surge from the Swiss player who has forced himself into the top 4 and is sure to be a contender at the US Open later this year and of course the ATP Finals at the O2 Arena in London in November. His victory in Paris showed his ability to beat players that would have been well fancied pre-match which saw him make history at Roland Garros. It wouldn’t be wise to bet against him now, in the form of his life and closing in on Federer as the Swiss number 1.

Wawrinka after his French Open win.

Wawrinka after his French Open win.

Wawrinka’s route to the final isn’t an easy having to face Gasquet and then either Djokovic or Cilic depending in that other quarter-final. However I am certain Wawrinka would rather face Djokovic than Federer or Murray who are in the other side of the draw. Wawrinka knows how to manipulate the Serb and really make him feel uncomfortable on court.

Wawrinka has a massive opportunity and this week could define his career over the next decade and which players dominate the majors over the coming years. It is a vital week not just for Wawrinka but the sport in general.