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Ireland set to shatter England's dominance

Scotland v Ireland, RBS Six Nations: Murrayfield, February 4, 2.05pm

By Jonathan Bradley

The last Saturday before the Six Nations - Christmas Eve for rugby fans in the northern hemisphere.

And unlike a year ago, there is a positive outlook surrounding the Irish cause entering the campaign.

By and large - Jared Payne and Sean Cronin have been ruled out - the side's matchday 23 arrives intact, although concerns over Johnny Sexton's calf and lack of game time linger.

Even if the 2013 Lions Test number ten were to be absent, it would not spark the widespread panic witnessed before, say, the World Cup quarter-final loss to Argentina in 2015.

Over the last season, Ulster's Paddy Jackson has displayed his ability to fill in for, and eventually succeed, Sexton with fine displays in wins over South Africa and Australia.

What seemed a narrow playing pool only a year ago has been widened by Joe Schmidt to such an extent that, while a rapid accumulation of injuries will always be damaging, it is arguably only skipper Rory Best and scrum-half Conor Murray who are truly irreplaceable.

As such, Ireland rightly begin the campaign as the team most likely to wrest the title from England's control.

They kick things off against Scotland in what is a first visit to Murrayfield for Schmidt's men since their 2015 title clincher.

While there will be no champagne corks popping this time regardless of what happens seven days from now, it is a game that will tell us much about both sides.

Ireland lost both their away games last year and, even if there are some who already have the clash with England on March 18 red-ringed on the calendar as a Grand Slam decider, Schmidt will not be looking beyond the meeting with old Clermont pal Vern Cotter.

Scotland have lost by more than a score only twice in their last 19 games - a fact that will now be rewarded with the introduction of bonus points - and will be buoyed by the success of Glasgow Warriors, who reached the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup in emphatic style this month.

Still, all eyes will be on England when they begin their campaign against France later that same day. Even with more key injuries than anyone else, Eddie Jones' men have rare depth and enter the tournament having won 14 games in a row.

Only five Grand Slam winners have repeated the trick a year later but the red rose seem well poised to expand that group.

Few things in sport are more cliched than the idea that "we just don't know which French team will turn up", especially given that in recent years we have and we've known that it won't be very good.

With Guy Noves in his second season, the former Toulouse figurehead has called for his side to be much more clinical in possession. And while such a refrain will be familiar to anyone following Ulster this season, the side's performances in the autumn at least trended upward.

If sport is not a matter of life and death, it is occasionally one of survival and such is the case as Italy begin their campaign.

Former Ireland international Conor O'Shea, who has taken the reins, has already spoken about the need to show his side belong in this championship.

The issue of promotion and relegation has reared its head throughout Italy's time in the tournament but grew exponentially last year.

The performance of various minnows in the 2015 World Cup, and yet another wooden spoon for the perennial underdogs last season, means the clamour for the likes of Georgia and Romania to be given a shot will only grow should they stutter once again.

Their first challenge comes with a visit from Wales who are without their coach Warren Gatland thanks to his Lions commitments. They were in this same situation four years ago, winning what was their last title in 2013, and enjoyed three wins during November. The talent is there, even if they aren't being talked about as contenders.

And looming large over the next two months will, of course, be that Lions tour to New Zealand.

Gatland names his selection for the summer tour in April, with the next eight weeks set to have a huge bearing, and each clash between the home unions will feature some tantalising head-to-heads between those vying for spots.

With all this in mind... let the battles commence.

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