When wandering down some of Dublin’s busiest streets its difficult to ignore the countless electoral posters which line the streets in their hundreds. Each one stars a TD or party leader front and centre. The subject of the personal political campaigns either smiling wryly or poising in an authoritative stance in order to gain voter trust.
Even when travelling out of the city, main roads and even country lanes are peppered with the same posters, battling each other for space on muddy verges. When passing through Ireland’s countryside around three weeks before the country goes to the polls, they are difficult to make out on a cold, misty January day. Election day is pencilled in for the 8th February as the current Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, faces a battle to retain his position in the Irish Parliament. On that same afternoon 23 of his country’s best rugby players will also face a battle in Dublin against Wales. Their victory is no more assured than Varadkar’s position as they welcome the Grand Slam champions to Dublin.
Lets park comparisons between politics and sport for now though, and consider the difficult selection that Andy Farrell had to make when he was deciding who would be wearing green this Spring. On the 15th January the former dual-coder, announced his 35-man squad and selected the experienced Jonny Sexton to be at the helm.
The group selected includes five uncapped players with the most eye-catching of these arguably being the English born Billy Burns. The fly-half struggled for game time at Gloucester after the Cherry and Whites signed Danny Cipriani in 2018. A fresh start proved appealing for Burns and he discovered this across the Irish Sea, finding an impressive patch of form at Ulster.
The Bathonian now has the chance to participate on the international stage, a goal he would have been unlikely to have fulfilled in the current English side. We could perhaps expect the 25-year-old to make an appearance of the bench when Italy come a calling in the fourth round. Unless the much-trusted war horse of Sexton has a nightmare, it’s unlikely he will find himself at Number 10 this time around and will more realistically be trying to wrestle the Number 21 jersey off Ross Byrne.
At 34-years-old and with 88 caps to his name, it will be interesting to see how Sexton handles the added burden of carrying the captain’s armband. With a solid record from the boot, there has been discussion surrounding an apparent drop in form in recent performances from the Leinster man, but much of this looks to have been exaggerated and perhaps, unjustified.
After all, 2018’s world player of the year has on countless occasions led from the front at regional level and on the international stage. His cold and calculated 83rd minute drop-goal after 41 phases against France not only left the Stade de France in a state of shock, but also kept Ireland in the running for the Grand Slam which they then delivered.
That year proved to be an historic one for the men in green as they followed a Grand Slam with a series victory in Australia, before triumphing against New Zealand for the first time on home soil. After a painful history of being knocked out of world cups with a whimper, it looked as though the Irish had finally peaked at the right time to make an impact at last year’s tournament.
Unfortunately for those watching on the Emerald Isle, this hope failed to materialise into clear cut success when Japan 2019 came calling. A less encouraging, but not dreadful Six Nations Campaign was followed by a hammering at the hands of a rampant New Zealand side in the Quarter Finals. This followed some unconvincing performances at the group stage after defeating a truly terrible Scotland side and doing what they had to against Russia and Samoa. Indeed, it was Sexton who experienced a galling debut as captain as his side went down 19-12 to Japan in Yokohama after looking like they would ruin the hosts’ party early on, before squandering a 12-point lead.
Andy Farrell will take on Joe Schmidt’s gauntlet with this recent drop in form in mind, but also with a clear focus on finding success in his step up from assistant to head honcho. His team selection certainly combines exciting and younger talent with some players from the old guard remaining central to his plans.
Farrell’s starting XV for the opener against Scotland encompasses debutant Caelan Doris who has shown his worth at Leinster and the uncapped Ronan Kelleher on the bench. Experienced faces such as Cian Healy, Ian Henderson and CJ Stander are also selected in the forwards as Ireland look to dominate their Celtic brethren up front, with Tag Furlong being an unstoppable force in the front row.
Meanwhile, the resurgent John Cooney will be disappointed to not be starting but is assured of replacing the weathered Conor Murray at some point during those first 80 minutes. With Bundee Aki and Gary Ringrose sitting outside Sexton and Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Conway on the wings, the hosts have no shortage in attacking firepower. They will also look to give the ever dangerous Jordan Lamour a lease of life at full back and it will be interesting to see how the 22-year-old deals with any attack Scotland can muster.
Ireland Vs Scotland – Saturday 1st February @16:45:
It is difficult to see Ireland losing this affair at the Aviva Stadium and there is likely to have been some quiet relief when it was announced they would be facing the Scots first up at home. The omission of two of their opposition’s most influential players, Finn Russell and Darcy Graham, will also give Ireland more confidence that they can come up trumps from this affair.
It has been ten years since Dan Parks proved the unlikely hero as he prevented an Irish Triple Crown at Croke Park with a late penalty to win the game 23-20 in Scotland’s favour. Since then however, Ireland have only lost three times (two in the Six Nations) in this fixture. They were dominant against their woeful World Cup opponents in September and have often left their plucky visitors bruised and battered in competitive, but controlled performances in Dublin.
A bonus point victory wouldn’t be an unrealistic target for the men in green, but they may face some battle from a Scotland side who will either fly or freeze after having to deal with a less than ideal preparation in the run up to this game. Ireland will likely push on and find gaps through brute force and skill. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ireland gain a bonus point victory. My prediction – Ireland by 15.
Ireland Vs Wales – Saturday 8th February @14:15:
This clash of Celtic giants has so often proved to be an entertaining affair and in honesty, the game I most look forward to viewing as a neutral. Always competitive and usually played between two sides contesting the Six Nations title and is very rarely not an enthralling contest. Ireland have claimed 13 of these 22 encounters since the inaugural Six Nations championship in 2000.
In last year’s edition, Gareth Anscombe kicked his Irish counterparts to death in the final round. But the games of recent times are more commonly open-ended affairs. During Ireland’s title run in 2018, an entertaining match ended 37-27 in their favour as Stockdale made a crucial interception to prevent a late Welsh attacking threat to score at the other end.
Indeed, the last time Wales found any gold at the end of the Aviva Stadium rainbow was in 2012 when they triumphed 23-21 over an Irish squad that won only two in that year’s championship. However, this year’s showdown presents another intriguing battle between two teams with new coaches at the helm in the form of Farrell and Wayne Pivac respectively.
Both sides are expected to win their opening ties which will perhaps provide them both with some more confidence if there was any in short supply before this match. Expect another open match with lots of running rugby and a great atmosphere to match the occasion. My prediction – Ireland by less than five.
England Vs Ireland – Sunday 23rd February @15:00:
The radio crackled as my father carefully navigated his way over the treacherous Cairn O’Mount in thick mist on the 24th February 2007. We were travelling home from Murrayfield after witnessing a thoroughly depressing Scottish performance as the hosts were resoundingly beaten 37-17 at the hands of Italy.
Suddenly the sombre mood in the car was lightened by the pure enthusiasm and excitement radiating from the Irish commentators on the radio as Issac Boss ran in Ireland’s fourth try in their 43-13 demolishment of England at Croke Park. It was rare to see an Irish side pile that many points on England, though the roles were well and truly reversed at Twickenham last year.
In that last meeting between the two sides, the English ran out 57-15 winners in a nightmarish world cup warm-up match. This followed a 32-20 English victory at the Aviva Stadium as the visitors overwhelmed their hosts in the first half with a barrage of attacking play. However, when these sides last met at Twickenham, Ireland were runway victors as they completed their Grand Slam campaign.
These occasions in themselves are clear examples of how volatile and unpredictable these match ups are, and I would suggest this year’s encounter will be no different. However, I have a feeling a confident England will dominate this encounter and will feed of Ireland’s failure to a get a grasp hold in the last two meetings between the sides. My prediction – England by 15.
Ireland Vs Italy – Saturday 7th March @14:15:
If you briefly delve into recent records of this fixture you will see a clear indication that the Italians have struggled against Irish opposition since their participation in the Northern Hemisphere’s biggest competition began. On six occasions the men from the Emerald Isle have scored a half century of points against the Azzurri and are known for giving the Italians a bit of a beating in Dublin’s fair city.
In 2018 it ended 29-10 in Ireland’s favour, while in 2016 Ireland were able to put 58 points on their Italian opposition. Sandwiched between these two fixtures was a resounding 63-10 win for the Irish at the Stadio Olimpico in 2017 and Ireland’s only defeat came in the shape of a 22-15 reverse in 2013.
In recent years this seems to have become a fixture which Ireland enjoy playing in and if their tournament hasn’t been going quite like they would have wanted it to, Andy Farrell and his men aren’t likely to take any prisoners against the Italians and a bonus point victory is likely to be in the offing. However, be prepared to see some changes come into force as the Head Coach may choose to rest some of his players for the Super Saturday showdown in Paris. My prediction – Ireland by 40.
France Vs Ireland – Saturday 14th March @20:00:
For Ireland’s final match of the campaign they travel to Paris, a city which used to be a huge thorn in their side but one that has proved a less intimidating place for them to travel to in recent years. Between 2003-2008 the Irish had to settle for a Triple Crown as they failed to overcome the French and even went 13 years without a win at the Stade de France between 2000-2014.
But now the tide has seemingly turned, and it is Les Bleus who find themselves without a triumph against their Irish rivals, their last one coming in the shape of a 10-9 victory four years ago. They have of course come close with the pre-mentioned Sexton drop goal raining on their parade in 2018’s championship. Ireland will however, carry the confidence of a convincing 26-14 triumph last year.
However, with this in mind they will perhaps find the going more difficult this time round against a French side with some exciting young talent which might just grow into the tournament as it goes on. With a finishing position in the championship in the balance, my gut says France will edge this one and recapture some of the stonewall confidence which they used to have when playing in this fixture.
My prediction – France by 5.
My Prediction for Ireland – 3rd place with 15 points