Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Ireland in great shape with two home games providing launch pad to glory

New ideas: Joe Schmidt has so much to offer Ireland
New ideas: Joe Schmidt has so much to offer Ireland

I'm not too sure what it is about the Six Nations but every time it comes around I get this confident feeling we can take on and beat the rest – silly!

Conventional wisdom dictates that can only happen every alternate year when we are home to the big two – England and France – in Dublin 4.

I no more accede to that theory than this balderdash about Lions players – i.e. Irish, English, Scottish and Welsh – being so whacked following their summer endeavours Down Under (bear in mind we are talking July 2013 here) that any post Lions Five/Six Nations is a sure fire cert French Grand Slam!

So there you have it. History dictates the 2014 campaign already done and dusted. The side that picked up the Wooden Spoon a year ago is going to smash the other five into smithereens this time round.

Of course the jewel in the northern hemisphere crown doesn't work like that and so armed with the knowledge that on any given day any one of the six can beat any one of the others it is with total and utter optimism that each competing nation (yes even the Italians) believe this to be their year.

Each New Year represents a clean slate and new ambition. And like most out there I too am the perennial optimist. And so it is again in 2014. But there are, I believe, very solid grounds for optimism. In ascending order:

1. Despite the loss of Tommy Bowe, Sean O'Brien and Donnacha Ryan to long term injury we are in pretty good nick in terms of fitness and form going into what is sure to be another exacting campaign.

2. The draw has been kind in so far as we have our opening two games at home. Not for a minute are we suggesting the visit of the Scots or Welsh a given but in terms of home comforts we couldn't be better set even with the English and French on the road to come.

3. For me the biggest plus of all centres around the new main man. Perhaps we are heaping unnecessary and unfair pressure on Joe Schmidt but as with the RFU when choosing Stuart Lancaster as head coach of England in succession to Martin Johnson, I believe in Schmidt the IRFU could not have chosen any more wisely irrespective of who was available worldwide.

It is the Schmidt factor which could and I feel might just give us an inside edge over the next six or so weeks.

Enough to win a second Six Nations Championship in Brian O'Driscoll's last year? Possibly, although realistically it could well prove a step too far.

Schmidt himself has set a target of top two (meaning second) and I think that a fair aspiration and achievable objective.

So what to expect on this the opening weekend of five cloaked in mystery and for me the beauty of this year's tournament given its uncertainty.

First up today it's Wales v Italy in Cardiff where realistically it is difficult to look beyond anything but a comprehensive home win.

That said the time to get the Italians is not in the opening couple of matches where they are as fired up and as ambitious as any of the other five but you can't look past the favourites.

VERDICT: Wales by 20.

Later on this afternoon in St Denis it's Le Crunch when the French and English clash in the game that has so often decided the Championship in times past. Will it again now? Only time will tell on that one but if ever a match was made in heaven to set the temperamental French in the mood this is it. Win today, tails will be up and another Grand Slam/Championship assault under way.

England by contrast continue to experiment behind the scrum and are still a work in progress.

VERDICT: Owen Farrell's accuracy to prove the difference with the clash of Billy Vunipola and Louis Picomoles worth the admission money alone.

Then tomorrow the big one in this part of the world, the clash of the Celts. Odds of 1-7 to get off to a winning start is not what Schmidt, Paul O'Connell or anyone else involved wants to hear but such is the reality of life in the fast lane of the Six Nations.

Verdict: Our playmaker in chief to experience once again the pleasures of home and deliver the type of performance befitting his new-found French status. Sexton to fire and Ireland to copper-fasten the bookies confidence. Shamrock to eclipse Thistle by 10.

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