It seems like no time since Johnny Sexton dropped into the pocket at a noisy Stade de France to set the ball rolling for Ireland’s eventual Grand Slam victory. Now, with less than one week to go, will Ireland emulate last year’s success, how many intercepts will out halves throw to Jacob Stockdale and who is going to be this year’s breakthrough player?
As it stands, I’d say Ireland are favourites to win the championship as they face England and France at the Aviva Stadium however it wouldn’t be surprising if the tournament goes to wire with Wales v Ireland in the final game-week being the decisive fixture.
Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne have been ruled out of the opening rounds through injury and while they are two major losses in the second row, Ireland’s terrific depth still has James Ryan and Devin Toner as the first choice pairing. Connacht’s Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane will provide adequate back up while Henderson and Beirne are injured.
Ireland’s centre partnership is another interesting decision. With talented players such as Stuart McCloskey and Rory Scannell not making the squad, it signifies the strength in depth that Joe Schmidt has at his disposal. Robbie Henshaw is still recovering from a dislocated shoulder picked up in the Autumn Internationals so I expect Bundee Aki will take the 12 jersey against England, leaving Will Addison, Chris Farrell and Garry Ringrose and Tom Farrell jostling for the 13 jersey.
Addison will likely be included on the bench due to his versatility so I would like to see Ringrose start in the 13 jersey. The former Blackrock College schoolboy has gone largely under the radar for Leinster this season but he has shown some seriously impressive touches as Leinster look to defend their league and European double.
His decision making is superb while he also has great hands and a wicked step as shown in the build up to Andrew Conway’s hat trick try against USA during the Autumn Internationals. Other notable games include both matches against Wasps as well as Leinster’s win over Toulouse in round five of Europe earlier this month.
Ireland are the in form side currently so I’m tipping them to win the tournament. I don’t think they’ll win the Grand Slam however as they have to travel to Murrayfield and Principality Stadium. Ireland came unstuck in both of these venues in 2017 and it ultimately cost them the tournament despite beating eventual winners England at the Aviva Stadium in the final round.
While their regions may not be performing to the best of their ability in the PRO14 and Europe, Wales always come together and form very formidable opposition. It will be Warren Gatland’s last Six Nations in charge and the former Irish boss usually has a trick up his sleeve, particularly as it is a World Cup year. Injuries to key players could affect their final standing but they’ve no lack of quality in the back row.
Now into his third tournament in charge of Italy, Conor O’Shea has shown progress albeit at a snail’s pace. At 35 years of age, Sergio Parisse continues as captain of his national side but they’re without key players such as Gloucester’s Jake Polledri and Matteo Minozzi who have been ruled out through injury. Despite having useful players Michele Campagnaro and Carlo Canna in the backline, I expect them to finish last.
One to watch
Jacob Stockdale was undoubtedly the breakthrough player in last year’s tournament scoring a record seven tries. I’ve chosen a selection of players who are fairly unknown on the international scene that could make a difference in this Six Nations if given the chance.
England’s Ollie Thorley receives his first international call up after a impressive season with Gloucester to date. The winger has lightning pace and scored an incredible try in Gloucester’s dismantling of Leicester before Christmas.
Thomas Young and Jonah Holmes will both feature in their first Six Nations tournaments. Young is a powerful ball carrier but equally adept at the breakdown and adds to an already quality Welsh back row. Similar to Thorley, Holmes is a pacey winger and made his debut during the most recent Autumn Internationals. He’s a regular in the Leicester Tigers backline starting either on the wing or at fullback.
France contain a number of their successful U20 World Championship team in the form of Romain N’tamack and Demba Bamba. The former is leading the Toulouse revival having helped them into the knockout rounds of the Champions Cup and to the top of the TOP14. Bamba is a strong prop and equally impressive ball carrier with a fantastic offload. He’s the only one of the French side playing in PROD2 and is currently at Jeremy Davidson’s Brive.