Three Nations

Hello everyone. It’s been .. checks watch .. a long time. Sorry, we’ve been marveling at how Stuart Lancaster has turned Leinster into Wasps (utterly contrary our predictions) and Les Kiss turning Ulster into Leinster. But now Ireland are back, and it’s <HYPE> time. It’s the Six Nations, when all predictions of a glorious festival of rugby get bogged down in a festoon of rain, French knock-ons and Scottish rifles aimed at toes. It will be as gritty as ever, but we loves it. Particularly when Ireland are looking so well set.

The Piano Shifters

For natural worriers like ourselves, we can’t help but notice that everyone is drooling over the Irish pack – the entire front row are being touted as Lions, the back row depth is ludicrous (Rhys Ruddock can’t make the 40 man tackle bag-heavy squad!) and most of the second rows are fashionable bolters. Where can it all go wrong?

The major areas of concern for us would be hooker and second row – with Sean Cronin’s injury and Strauss’ collapse in form, Besty will be backed up by James Tracy and Niall Scannell. Gulp. Asking one of your key men to play 80 minutes 5 times in 6 weeks, particularly when we have our two toughest games last, is a concern – without getting too far ahead of ourselves, let’s hope we are far enough ahead of Italy and France, in particular, to give 20 minutes to the freshers.

In the row, Devin Toner has quietly become indispensable. We reckon NWJMB and Ultan Dillane are a bit flashy to play together – indeed, it’s hard to see how Henderson can firmly nail down an international second row jersey while playing at blindside for Ulster – Henderson has been selected by Schmidt when fit, but you have to think Donnacha Ryan isn’t far away. Could Henderson or Ryan replicate Toner’s lineout, maul and scrummaging work if called upon? Maybe, but we reckon you’d notice Big Dev’s absence more than you think. Ultan Dillane isn’t yet a starter – if our memory serves us correct (since we didn’t post about it!), he had some fantastic moments against Canada, but also had some knock-ons and dumb penalties – not something Schmidt likes. Although at least with Toner, the dropoff isn’t as steep as for Besty, so at least he won’t have to play 400 minutes.

In the backrow, the first question appears to be who we leave out – although in such a highly attritional position, it’s unlikely a luxury we’ll have all series. Right now, we’d see Stander or SOB on the blindside (with the other on the bench), van der Flier at openside and Heaslip (as ever) at the base. For the moment, O’Mahony will have to content himself with singing passionately and making grown men scream like schoolgirls from the stands.

The Piano Players

For Besty above, read Conor Murray. Already operating at a high level, in the last twelve months Murray has been one of the best players on the planet.  Even the Kiwis rate him.  The dropoff from a probable Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions starter to Marmion and McGrath is like the north face of Eiger. Like Dillane, Marmion got some useful time against Canada, but when we got into their 22, they seemed to find it really easy to defend against him. We remain to be convinced unfortunately. As we remain with McGrath – he looked good with an armchair ride from the Leinster pack early this season, but his game fell apart when Leinster were struggling in Castres. McGrath is a young man just getting a consistent run of starts, and if he needs to be pitched in this series, its unlikely to work out well for anyone. Whoever plays on the blindside is going to have to guard Murray from Josh Strauss better than Munster did in the recent episode of the Passion of St Tibulus.

At outhalf, the usual applies. Sexton doesn’t play 80 minutes any more, and is very likely to miss an entire game. So let’s assume he plays 60% of the available gametime – are we concerned? Not really – Paddy Jackson is a more than adequate replacement .. with one caveat – he needs to cut out the clanger-per-game pattern we’ve seen from him in green, particularly if we need him against Wales or England – the margins will be too tight for that. Still, Jackson is a better outhalf than Finnocent, Cameeeee Lopez and Carlo Canna and about as good as George Ford, so let’s not devote an entire week of analysis to the fact that Madigan isn’t needed any more, shall we?

The biggest injury absentee in the backline is Jared Payne. Payne is an excellent defender and a pereceptive and dangerous open-field runner – we’d have him as our starting fullback, but he’s a nailed on starter either way – 15 or 13. And do we miss him? Of course we do, but we had more than adequate backups – Henshaw and Ringrose actually looks like one of the best partnerships in the hemisphere at the moment, and Luke Marshall is a perfectly serviceable backup for either. Choo Choo Stu is an exciting and different option we’d like to see more of, but he seems in the awkward spot that he is too predictable for international defences, but too unpredictable for Schmidt. The summer series is the time for him.

In the outside back division, we’re mentally preparing for Rob Kearney to start the tournament at 15 – we think it’s probably more likely to be Zebo, but best to prepare for the worst. Stuart Hogg and co will be furiously gameplanning for facing a fullback who can catch and kick. Else, it’s Zebo, Earls, Trimble – that’s pretty good really. Earls is having a stupendous season for Munster and Trimble remains as doughty as ever – BOSH!  Admittedly, after two injuries, we are into Gilroy-on-the-bench territory, but we’ve come a long way from the Brian Carney days.

The Piano Concerto

So basically, there are two men we absolutely cannot do without – Besty and Murray – and one that we’ll need to win the tournament – Toner. If we manage to keep the above three fit, we’ve every chance.

The team everyone is purring over is England, and why not? Thirteen wins in a row is damn good. Still, we’d be a little more sanguine on them – they have tons of players either out or just returning from injuries: Marler, Cole, Haskell, Robshaw, Vunipola x 2, Kruis, Launchbury, Watson. They have a deep squad, but that is a lot of change to wear, and we haven’t even mentioned their captain returning from a ban for thuggery a technical issue with his tackling. Cardiff in week two might be when the run stops for them – and incidentally gives Gatty the perfect excuse to BOSH this summer.

Without him, the Welsh are engaged in some good old-fashioned in-fighting – although they normally like to get that in whoever the coach is. Still, none of that mattered in 2013, and they have the players – Alun Wyn Jones is O’Connell’s spiritual successor, and we expect Warburton to be very influential. Scott and Liam Williams are excellent players, and they’ve competition in the halves. They’ll fancy themselves (quelle surprise) and they have the best fixtures, with Ireland and England at home.

Those two, and Ireland, are the contenders – again. And it will come down to the games between them .. and for Ireland, it will come down to the fitness of Besty, Murray and Toner. Our prediction is that if Besty and Murray play 350+ minutes, and Toner starts every game, we’ll win the tournament, probably through bonus points. Wales are most likely to disrupt that one – they tend to gather momentum as the series progresses, and we have them away in round four. That’s tough.

France are a disaster – for all the supposed improvements Noves has made, they’ll still pick 140kg props who cannot run, and second rows who consider giving away six penalties a game a disciplined performance. Offloads to no-one, backline moves 40m behind the gainline – it will be ugly, and potentially wooden spoon winning, with a trip to Rome in prospect. Scotland have potential (quelle surprise) but have found a way of shooting themselves in the foot under Cotter – they’ll keep that record up. Italy should be better organised under O’Shea, but have Ulster-itis: no decent forwards. The big three will beat up the small three. Again.

Let’s back the best coach (and the coach most fortunate with injuries to date): Ireland to stay fit and win the tournament by virtue of a bonus point garnered by some Ringrose genius in the last minute in Murrayfield.