Regardless of where you think the trophy will end up – and this promises to be the most open tournament for quite a while – the imminent Six Nations is certain to feature some terrifically tight contests. In front of a capacity crowd at the Millennium Stadium, Saturday’s opener in Cardiff could well be one of the closest. Desperate to banish autumn embarrassment, the hosts welcome a resurgent set of Irishmen. Expect the competition to explode into life at the earliest possible opportunity.
Reasons to back Wales
In the wake of an epic injury crisis, Rob Howley has still been able to field a robust front row, on reputation at least. Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees and Adam Jones – the gnarled trio of British and Irish Lions that stalled the Springbok juggernaut four years ago – should find parity in the scrum. Even ring-rusty, Jones can be confident of dismantling Cian Healy, whose work in the tight, although improving, is not quite polished. With around one in four resulting in penalties these days, Romain Poite’s interpretation of their tussle is key.
Behind them, Howley has opted for raw athleticism. Debutant Andrew Coombs is a converted back-rower, while Sam Warburton should be confident of overrunning far burlier Sean O’Brien. With Aaron Shingler and Toby Faletau also in tow, the home side’s back row is probably better balanced than that of their rivals. If the skipper does stall, Justin Tipuric should be swiftly unleashed from the bench to wreak havoc at ruck-time. Having fought back to fitness after a nagging knee problem, Ian Evans’ presence is terribly important. As the only man to play every minute of the Grand Slam last season, the 27 year-old is capable of correcting a lineout that was a total mess against Australia.
In terms of capability, Wales should be content with the look of their backline. When the likes of Mike Phillips, Jamie Roberts and George North click into gear with go-forward ball, they are irresistible. Leigh Halfpenny will kick his goals and last year in Dublin Jonathan Davies grabbed a brace of tries. Most encouraging though, is the form of Dan Biggar, the man entrusted with harmonizing the considerable talents around him. For the Ospreys, he has taken the right options with calm regularity without becoming overly predictable. If that transfers to national colours, Wales will not be far away.
Reasons to back Ireland
Finally back to the international fold for the first time since last summer, Brian O’Driscoll rarely fails to inspire. As he showcased fleetingly during Leinster’s ultimately futile Heineken Cup run, his deft handling remains tough to defend against. Trademark tenacity won’t be lacking, either. In a typically forthright interview this month, O’Driscoll hinted at quiet confidence. Not on a personal level – that isn’t his style. Instead, by pointing out that Ireland often perform in a Lions year – the 2009 Grand Slam as evidence – he suggested that others will be on fire. And there is a lot of fuel to fan the flames.
Named as captain, Jamie Heaslip has incentive to rediscover his Herculean best and his carries can really hurt Wales at close quarters; likewise his great friend Healy, who has been in utterly devastating fettle around the fringes at provincial level. Rory Best’s consistency would make every set-piece more solid, while Mike McCarthy and Donnacha Ryan comprise an intimidating, abrasive boiler-room. Nobody will shirk the dog-fight up front.
A hugely impressive aspect of the 46-24 win over Argentina in November was how nicely the partnership between Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton functioned. Slick and assured, the duo’s rapid service allowed those outside them to pick scything lines. Flying Ulsterman Craig Gilroy was the main beneficiary that day, and retains his place at the expense of Andrew Trimble. Despite his tender years and relative lack of bulk, he will be a headache that North must shackle.
So difficult. Writing off Wales is never advisable, even in spite of seven consecutive defeats. Then again, Ireland possess a significant amount of class themselves. This one will be decided at the very wire, though. And I feel that psychological scars inflicted over the past nine months might re-open. Ireland by three.
By Charlie Morgan