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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Aviva Premiership Preview: Saracens

Director of Rugby/ Head Coach: Mark McCall

Captain: Brad Barritt

Stadium: Allianz Park (Capacity: 10,000)

Last Season: Champions

Prediction: Champions

Saracens had a hugely successful season last time out completing a European-Premiership double.

The London based club are awash with international talent with seven of the squad picked to tour with England in June to Australia. Alex Goode, Owen Farrell, Billy Vunipola, George Kruis, Maro Itoje, Jamie George and Mako Vunipola all playing a part in the tour.

FARRELL

Farrell kicking a goal as Saracens defeat Zebre. 

Saracens solid defensive style due to the ‘wolfpack’ instilled by former defence coach Paul Gustard and the the ability of Owen Farrell to manage the game makes them the most well drilled side in the Premiership.

Patterned play and effective breakdown work sets them apart from their rivals. Their ability to carry round the corner and explode past the defender in the ruck allows them to use phase play as an attacking weapon.

THREE TO WATCH

Owen Farrell

Position: Fly-Half/Centre  Nationality: English  Age: 24  Height: 1.88m  Weight: 96kg

The England fly-half is the key to Saracens attacking play, his goal kicking and game management allow Saracens to continue playing in the right areas of the field so he can kick the points.

His defensive game is the best of any Premiership fly-half and his attacking game has come on leaps and bounds over the past season. He now has this style of playing whats in front of him which has given Saracens an extra gear.

He’ll be on the Lions tour come June.

Maro Itoje

Position: Lock/Flanker  Nationality: English  Age: 21  Height: 1.95m  Weight: 116kg

The Saracens lock had an outstanding year winning every game he started for both Saracens and England. He became an international superstar, people in Australia will know the name now.

ITOJE

Maro Itoje with the European Champions Cup.

The 21 year old was an outstanding presence to have in the dressing room, almost a lucky charm. The power and pace he possesses is extraordinary but the lock just wants to keep improving and continue to grow as a rugby player.

Billy Vunipola

Position; Number Eight  Nationality: English  Age: 23  Height: 1.88m  Weight: 126kg

The number eight was undoubtedly England’s player of the season form which was equally impressive for his club.

His ball carrying and size make him a really dangerous player to have attacking the fringes and the way he works with a back row is really important to Saracens breakdown work, the addition of Schalk Burger will further improve this dynamic.

TRANSFERS

IN (6)

Schalk Burger (Western Stormers, SAF)

Mark Flanagan (Bedford Blues, ENG)

Vincent Koch (Western Stormers, SAF)

Alex Lozowski (Wasps, ENG)

Sean Maitland (London Irish, ENG)

Savenaca Rawaca (Fiji Sevens, INT)

OUT (10)

Biyi Alo (Worcester Warriors, ENG)

Jacques Burger (Retired, RET)

Catalin Fercu (Timisora Saracens, ROM)

Rhys Gill (Cardiff Blues, WAL)

Charlie Hodgson (Retired, RET)

Kieran Longbottom (Sale Sharks, ENG)

Aaron Morris (Harlequins, ENG)

Thretton Palamo (Bristol Rugby, ENG)

Dave Porecki (London Irish, ENG)

Ben Ransom (London Irish, ENG)

The capture of Burger is a hugely impressive signing and he will add to Saracens already impressive back row resources. Maitland adds some pace out wide and Koch will provide depth in the front row.

BURGER.jpg

New signing, Schalk Burger.

Hodgson and Burger have been great servants to the club and leave with heavy hearts. Gill will be missed for his scrum work and Biyi Alo is an exciting prospect.

My Saracens 23

15 Alex Goode 14 Chris Ashton 13 Duncan Taylor 12 Brad Barritt (Captain) 11 Chris Wyles 10 Owen Farrell 9 Richard Wigglesworth

1 Mako Vunipola 2 Schalk Brits 3 Petrus Du Plessis 4 Maro Itoje 5 George Kruis 6 Jackson Wray 7 Schalk Burger 8 Billy Vunipola

16 Jamie George 17 Vincent Koch 18 Billy Walker 19 Alistair Hargreaves 20 Will Fraser 21 Ben Spencer 22 Alex Lozowski 23 Sean Maitland

Saracens are clearly the side to beat this season.

Is Joshua Due to Join the Greats?

The meteoric rise of Anthony Joshua continued after his 17th knockout victory over Dominic Breazeale to defend his world title, following his win over Charles Martin back in April.

Joshua is quite spectacular with only two of his fights ever lasting past the third round (Breazeale and Whyte) and his confidence is high. There are some seriously good heavyweight boxers on the scene at the moment though.

Joshua is not short of potential opponents this side of the Atlantic though. David Haye has continually expressed his desire to fight the IBF champion. Joshua also may look to fight Tyson Fury in the future.

The Mancunian was due to put his titles on the line in July when he fought Klitschko for a second time but that fight will have to be suspended due to Fury suffering an ankle injury in training.

JOSHUA.jpg

Joshua celebrates his win with a selfie with Eddie Hearn.

Anthony Joshua has already done something quite remarkable he picked up the IBF title in  less fights than both of the boxing greats Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali winning the belt in 16 fights.

The 26 year old clearly has his sights set on becoming universal champion that would mean he would have to fight Fury as well as beat WBC champions Deontay Wilder.

A fight with Deontay Wilder seems a long way off though as Joshua’s team are keen to keep Joshua winning and get him better before exposing him to a seasoned fighter such as Wilder.

For the moment it looks as though Joshua’s focus will be on retaining his IBF world title, the fights with Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder can wait, Joshua is in no rush to take his name among the greats.

The Premier League: What’s Left to Sort Out?

So following Spurs draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, the incredible Foxes were crowned champions of England for the first time in their 132 year history.

goooal

Leicester City have finally won the Premier League title.

Ranieri is no longer the nearly man, and he has done it on what can be described as a tight budget with two games to spare an astonishing achievement for a club that signed their star striker for just £1 million, compared to Manchester City’s Agüero who cost them a cool £38 million as the second most expensive transfer in Premier League history.

Champions crowned now all eyes are on two important races, the race for the top four and the race to avoid the drop.

In the race for the top four it seems there are you could argue four teams but Arsenal should be safe. Manchester City, Manchester United and West Ham now have to fight it out to see who can make it into the Champions League.

aguero

Agüero cost City an eye watering £38 million.

4th Manchester City

Played 36 Points 64 Goal Difference 30

The club built on Mansour’s millions, shaped around a plethora of international stars. Pellegrini heads for the exit at the end of a disappointing season where a team that should be topping the league every season is fighting to retain  Champions League status without having to win the trophy itself.

They have scored more goals than any other Premier League side with 68 but a leaky defence has conceded 38 goals, a problem that is hard to fix and with Manchester United and West Ham only four and five points away respectively with a game in hand the pressure is on.

Should they fail to keep hold of fourth the Champions League tie tomorrow becomes all the more significant.

Remaining Fixtures: Arsenal (H), Swansea (A)

Prediction: 4th

martial.jpg

Martial has been one of van Gaal’s few successes in the transfer market.

5th Manchester United

Played 35 Points 60 Goal Difference 12

Money spent on players that don’t perform. A disastrous season for the Red Devils, not enough goals, not good enough performances. Louis van Gaal has failed to restore the one great club to the top of the league.

An FA Cup final awaits against the struggling Crystal Palace what little consolation that will prove to be should Manchester United miss out on a Champions League place.With Martial looking to be the only signing that has actually made any progress the future does look bleak for United fans.

It looks as though another summer of signings is on the horizon and possibly the arrival of old rival Mourinho although it may take more than the ‘Special One’ to help this club’s fortunes.

marky boy

Mark Noble has been key for West Ham this season.

Remaining Fixtures: Norwich (A), West Ham (A), Bournemouth (H)

Prediction: 6th

6th West Ham United

Played 35 Points 59 Goal Difference 17

Unlike the other two the Londoners will be happy with their current position, they have been wonderful but due to Leicester’s title run their big performances have gone unnoticed under the radar.

Mark Noble has been at the heart of this team’s fight and desire along with left back Aaron Cresswell. West Ham are looking like this could be their year to finally be in the Champions League by taking that coveted 4th spot.

The Hammers have a crucial showdown with Manchester United on 10th May which could well decide the race. And with the other two sides having the Champions League and FA Cup to focus on West Ham could have the edge.

Remaning Fixtures: Swansea (H), Manchester United (H), Stoke (A)

Prediction: 5th

Now for the relegation fight and the race to avoid the drop.

newcaaaaastle

Newcastle are having a tough year.

17th Newcastle United

Played 36 Points 33 Goal Difference -25

The historic club have had a horrific season by all accounts, a number of false dawns under McLaren were crushed after suffering some scarring defeats. And it took Benitez a few games to get the ball rolling but now the club are unbeaten in their last four matches.

Two massive games left and with points likely to be tight the game against Aston Villa is vital. It is also notable that Spurs no longer have anything to play for the Champions League is secured.

Going down would signal a backwards step especially considering some of the players in the squad but they are the form side.

Remaining Fixtures: Aston Villa (A) Tottenham Hostpur (H)

Prediction: 17th

afcsund

Sunderland could be facing the drop.

18th Sunderland

Played 35 Points 32 Goal Difference -18

Defoe is the reason Sunderland are still fighting for survival, and how crucial might his equaliser against Stoke prove to be?

The relegation fight sees all eyes now on the northeast, Newcastle or Sunderland some have already written off Norwich. Sunderland do have a tough run in but a game in hand over their bitter rivals.

With one great English club destined for the Championship it would be a shame to see another go.

Remaining Fixtures: Chelsea (H), Everton (H), Watford (A)

Prediction: 18th

ncf

Norwich have not had much to cheer about this year.

19th Norwich City

Played 35 Points 31 Goal Difference -26

It looked at one point that the Canaries might have pulled away and survived but an upturn in the fortunes of Sunderland and Newcastle quashed that dream.

Watford and Bournemouth both kicked on this season from the Championship, Norwich sadly have struggled to find consistent form. They also have a game over currently safe Newcastle but again have a tricky run-in.

Norwich look down already but a good run could see them pull off a couple of vital wins. Only time will tell.

Remaining Fixtures: Manchester United (H), Watford (H), Everton (A)

Prediction: 19th

uh oh.jpg

What a year it’s been for Jamie Vardy.

So Leicester are champions but plenty to keep you interested for the rest of the season.