Last year, I tipped Ireland to win on the basis of England’s injuries at the time and the performances of the provinces at that stage last season. This year, the tone of the Irish mainstream media is similar: Leinster have won six from six in their pool and Munster did what they had to do to reach the knockout stages of the Champions’ Cup. There has been talk of a burn out in the English squad. England coach, Eddie Jones is encouraging that talk in perfect Jose Mourinho style.
Ignore Jones. England are still the team to beat and will probably win the championship. Owen Farrell has hit form at the right time and they have adequate cover for the loss of Vunipola with names like Dan Cole, Joe Launchbury, George Kruis, Dylan Hartley and Chris Robshaw. All these players will ensure that, in order for England to be denied the championship, an opponent’s’ lineout and scrum divisions will need to be well-oiled because England’s strike plays are deadly.
Ireland, despite having thirteen players injured, are in rude health as a squad. Ireland’s well-known halfback pairing in Sexton and Murray are fit, along with fellow European Player of the Year and Lions Star, Tadhg Furlong. Ireland also have two form fullbacks in Rob Kearney and Jordan Larmour.
In all honesty, Ireland’s game plan probably isn’t going to change too much in terms of being collision focussed and letting the backline operate intelligently in gaining territorial advantage. Schmidt’s argument has always been: There’s nothing wrong with the game plan. If it’s executed correctly we will win. Ireland could and should do well in this tournament with the personnel available. They won’t win the title though. Twickenham is a real pressure zone and the English will be fired up.
Welsh rugby is on an 11-year high. Scarlets are the first Welsh side to reach the Champions Cup Quarter Final. The Scarletts play a brand of rugby that is difficult to defend against. Warren Gatland has a different game plan, however. Yet with so many internationals like Leigh Halfpenny now playing rugby at home, Wales are sure to have a better showing than last season’s finish in fifth place.
I could well be eating my words during Easter Week because I predicted a fourth place finish for the Scots. They were the team of the November internationals this season, having torn Australia to shreds and run the All Blacks close. When Stuart Hogg hunts space with the hunger of a fox hunting rabbits, it takes a very fit defence to live with them for 80 minutes.
France, I believe, could be making a fatal mistake naming a squad with so much inexperience and it is doubtful that their new coach has fully implemented his blueprint yet. I expect the French to finish fifth. Whereas, I don’t see the Italians finishing anywhere but bottom because of the sheer gulf in class in the skills of the backline.
Conor Lynott – Sports Editor