Shôn Douglas previews the 2020 Guinness Six Nations Championship for Sport Talk. We Love Sport have teamed up with tournament sponsors Guinness to bring you complimentary pints during the championship – to redeem simply download the We Love Sport app.
Joe Schmidt’s reign as Ireland coach ended with a disappointment as the former world number one team had both a Six Nations and a World Cup to forget, but with Andy Farrell moving into the Head Coach position, the boys in green have the consistency that others are maybe missing.
Farrell knows the tournament inside out, having served on England’s staff before joining Schmidt at Ireland, and he will be making sure that the Irish turn up focussed and with every intention of winning the Six Nations.
Following the retirement of Ulsterman Rory Best, the mantle of captain has gone to Johnny Sexton over back row Peter O’Mahony and the 34 year old will be keen to impress in the new role – as well as stay injury free throughout the tournament.
Should Sexton not fully recover from the injury sustained during Leinster’s victory over Northampton in the Champions Cup, Ross Byrne and the uncapped Billy Burns will deputise, which would be a blow to Ireland’s style of play that has delivered so much success in recent years.
At scrum half there are no such concerns, as Ireland have one of the form players in the Northern Hemisphere right now in Ulster’s John Cooney. He has been in scintillating form of late, conjuring up tries from nothing while offering a dependable kicking option with the boot. He will be pressing Connor Murray for the starting berth, but it’s a selection headache that Andy Farrell will be grateful for.
In terms of selection, with Leinster leading the Pro14 in some style (ten wins from ten and a points difference of 227 owing to a stingy defence) and into the quarter-finals of the European Cup, it is a fair assumption that the boys in blue will dominate the boys in green’s first line up against Scotland at the Aviva. Ulster’s improvements this year have helped to reduce a bit of the overreliance on the Munster/Leinster axis, and will help to keep competition within the camp at a healthy level.
Jacob Stockdale may have some doubts over his defensive game, but he is still a lethal finisher and will bring a real threat to the Irish attacking line. Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw’s partnership for Leinster is likely to be the starting centre pairing, but Bundee Aki and the in-form Stuart McCloskey will be looking to break up the band. At full back, the ever-exciting Jordan Larmour will be looking to stake a claim to the 15 jersey now that Rob Kearney’s time seems to be done.
The loss of Rory Best has given the opportunity for a change at hooker and the relatively inexperienced Rob Herring, Ronan Kelleher and Dave Heffernan are in the squad ahead of older heads Sean Cronin and Rory Scannell. For all the flair in the backs, if the Irish set piece doesn’t work then a lot of the game plan will fall flat. With excellent targets in the line out, such as James Ryan and the recalled Devin Toner, there’ll be few excuses if Ireland fail to secure their own ball and unleash the backs.
The confidence amongst the squad will be high with the domestic form of Leinster in particular and Ulster not far behind, so it will be interesting to see how much Andy Farrell sticks with tried and tested combinations in his first XV against Scotland – or whether he mixes things up.
On their day Ireland can be unplayable, scoring tries from all over the pitch with the likes of CJ Stander, Cian Healy and Keith Earls always sniffing around, but is there a plan B? Farrell is an inexperienced coach and this will be his first time making the big decisions himself. If he gets them wrong there will surely be an inquest, particular from the Dublin press, as to how such a talented group could come away without a trophy for yet another year. They will be up there at the end, but I fancy them to slip behind both England and Wales into third spot.
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