It’s shaping up to be a scintillating few weeks of rugby after the November international series, even if it is going to be broadcast on an entirely unfamiliar TV3. England will again be tipped as favourites going into this year’s championship, but Ireland stand a reasonable chance against an Eddie Jones’ side that failed to impress over the November series and appeared uncharacteristically human against Australia. Another team pipping England for the title is not unthinkable, and certainly more likely to occur than last year.
Joe Schmidt commented on the official IRFU website that it was “great to see some competitive depth in certain positions” and there are many UCD players directly involved in this competition and putting their hands up to feature prominently in this year’s campaign. Picking the Irish backrow given the current level of competition is not a managerial headache you would wish on anyone, but one that Joe Schmidt and his backroom team will view as a good problem to have. With Sean O’Brien being unavailable for selection due to injury, UCD’s Josh van der Flier is expected to join Munster’s Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander in the backrow. Other UCD forwards Dan Leavy, James Ryan and Andrew Porter will be looking to make significant impacts when called upon, with one eye on Japan next year and accumulating invaluable competitive test rugby minutes to be in contention for a place on the plane. Rob Kearney will add much-needed experience to the crop of youthful back three options and Luke McGrath might have overtaken Marmion as Conor Murray’s understudy, given the high standard of the UCD man’s recent performances for his province. His growing partnership with out-half Johnny Sexton and his defensive leadership and work-ethic, with particular reference to the impressive set of three tackles in a row against Cardiff, cannot be overlooked. If this Irish side are still in the running for the championship come Paddy’s Day, expect the UCD boys to have been heavily involved in getting them there.
Jacques Brunel will be hoping his youthful French side can muster up some French flair, with 17 of the 32-man squad under the age of 25. He has named no less than 6 uncapped players, including the dynamic 19-year old out-half Matthieu Jalibert. Baptiste Serin, Louis Picamoles and Francois Trinh-Duc are the notable omissions from the French side set to face Ireland in what can only be described as a bold move by the new head-coach. We’re hoping that Conor O’Shea’s side can pull a tactical masterstroke out of the new rulebook after Eddie Jones’ churlish reaction to last year’s tactics and the subsequent introduction of the ‘Italian rule’. It seems that despite their vast improvements, Italy will struggle without this tactical advantage and are destined to retain the wooden spoon for another year at least. It will be an enormous task to keep pace with this formidable English side, whom are slowly building towards next year’s world cup and accumulating much silverware on their way. Scotland gave one of the performances of the November series against the All-Blacks and came agonisingly close to beating the team ranked first in the world. No Irish rugby supporters will need remining how our side fared against them last year. With their new lightning-paced, expansive rugby under Gregor Townsend, the opener against the abrasive Welsh side in Cardiff could be the game of the series.
The women’s side of the competition should be an equally entertaining encounter as indicated by last year’s closely contested affair. The Irish team pulled together a victory against the Welsh for new head-coach Adam Griggs and new captain Ciara Griffin in a pre-championship warm-up game and will look forward to their first competitive test away to the French in February. Megan Williams, Alison Miller and Sene Naoupu were all on the scoresheet in Wales and were not included in the 7’s side that travelled to Sydney for the next round of the series. There were some excellent displays from the Irish players throughout the women’s interprovincial series in December and hopefully the girls in green will still be in contention for the championship when they face England in the final game.
Regardless of the outcome, we can expect some highly entertaining rugby from the Irish backline. Stockdale and Conway were both given a lot of game time during the November series and Keith Earls is in an impressive vein of form for Munster. Joey Carbery was tearing open the Fijian defence until his contribution came to an unfortunate end, but he has sufficiently recovered from his injury and could be used very effectively from the bench to expose tired defences with his broken line running and stepping ability. I haven’t even mentioned Jordan Lamour yet. Hopefully this unprecedented competition for places will precipitate strong performances, positive results, because we don’t want to be listening to ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ for too long on the 17th of March.