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Six Nations : Ireland Seek Solid Start

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And so here we are again, the start of another Six Nations campaign. Probably the most open this championship has been in years. Four of the six competing nations will have high hopes of claiming the honours, maybe even harbour ambitions of a Grand Slam. If we have learned anything from last year’s competition, it should be that the November internationals only give a slight indication as to who’s in form and who isn’t. Wales had a dismal run of performances in that respect and continued their losing streak against Ireland in their opening fixture of the Six Nations. They turned their fortunes around in the next round and went on to claim their second championship win in a row. England brought with them, the slayers of the All Blacks tag and expectations were high, however they fell at the last hurdle and fell hard. Ireland and France had campaigns to forget and Italy and Scotland managed to escape from the bottom two places on the table. The opening weekend will obviously tell a lot, here’s what’s on offer.

Wales V Italy (Saturday 2.30pm)

Wales will be happy to canter into their defence of their crown with a home tie versus Italy. The Welsh with home advantage should have the players and the squad to see this one out comfortably. Beware the minnow though, the Italians have made huge strides in this competition in recent years, they are not the walkover that they have been in the past. The Welsh will have to treat this fixture with all the respect that it deserves, a loss here would be devastating to their hopes of retention and three in a row.

Sam Warburton returns to the bench leaving Alun Wyn Jones to captain the side. The Italians however will come into this game with hope if nothing else. Last year’s opening fixture saw them turn over the French, which set them on their way to a fourth place finish, their highest to date. As far as the history goes between these two sides, Wales obviously have the upper hand. In the past ten meetings, Wales have won eight, lost one and drew one. The Azzurri will look back to the 2006 season in which they drew 18-18 in the Millennium Stadium, the following year they managed a 23-20 victory on home soil in Rome. Back in 2003 the Italians also managed a home win, so it is not without hope that they travel to Cardiff this Saturday.

Verdict: Wales by 10+.

Player Watch: Leigh Halfpenny on his day is a match-winner, his kicking can be faultless and his movement in open play, devastating. Sergio Parisse is as inspirational and influential a player as you can get, heart firmly fixed to his sleeve, he leads by example. Can have a major impact on any game and will no doubt come out, guns blazing into this one.

France V England (Saturday 5.00pm)

The mouth watering pick of the opening fixtures, both England and France will be desperate to get off to a winning start in 2014. A tough opener for both sides, with England coming so close to claiming the title last year and France trying to forget and make amends for bringing home the wooden spoon. The French were caught by Italy last year in their opening fixture but their tails will be up well in advance of the visit by England. The home crowd will be expectant and the French will want to start well and keep their supporters on side. If England are to go on and win this championship, perhaps it is better for them to play this away fixture early rather than later on in the year. France have undoubtedly got the players but they are temperamental to say the least, they can play some dynamic rugby at times and if they take on that free flowing running game that they are capable of, England will have it all to do to curtail them. A good start will be the hope of both sides, England will not want to have to chase this game and France will not want to test the patience of the home crowd. Les Bleus will be anxious to leave a poor 2013 well and truly behind them, they managed only two victories all year, a draw with Ireland and eight defeats. Home advantage is also a factor but to separate these two, it may be crucial. The last ten meetings between these two sides have seen England come out on top on six occasions and probably more importantly, three of those were in Paris.

Verdict: France by 5+.

Player Watch: Wesley Fofana can be a line breaker that the French can utilise this weekend. He has the ability to cause untold damage to the opposition if given the opportunity. Chris Robshaw will hope to make a big impact for England. It’s not only his ability with and without the ball that they will need. His role as captain will be crucial. It looks like England may start with some new caps and some less experienced players and so Robshaw’s role will be all the more important.

Ireland V Scotland (Sunday 3.00pm)

Ireland host Scotland in the final game of the opening weekend of the Six Nations Championship. It is a fixture that they will fancy to get off to a winning start with. The Scots managed to turn over Ireland last year and Ireland will want to put that one right. This year may be a bit of a year of transition for the Irish but the core of the team are still there. Periphery players will be desperate to get in and show what they can do and so the starting fifteen will be under pressure to keep their shirts. This group of Irish players have won Triple Crowns and a Grand Slam in 2009 but with the players that they have and had, they have somewhat underachieved. They have finished second on numerous occasions, 2007 probably the most heart breaking. Coming off the back of a stunning 70 minute performance against the All Blacks before Christmas, the Irish will have the Slam in their sights again this year. Obviously France and England away will make that goal difficult but Ireland will not fear any team in this year’s competition.

Scotland will also be looking for a good start in Dublin. Their record in the Six Nations over the past few years has seen them propping up the table with Italy. The last ten outings between these sides in all competitions give Ireland a slight advantage on a score of six to four. Scotland will be hoping to finally settle on a starting fifteen that can make an impact in this year’s campaign. Underdogs are always dangerous and Ireland will have to be mentally ready from the off. Giving any team a head start is dangerous and Scotland will be no different if they manage to ruffle some Irish feathers early on. Sean O’Brien’s ball carrying will be a huge loss but it also offers an opportunity to others to show what they are made of. Joe Schmidt will be anxious to build on that last minute defeat to the All Blacks, he is an astute operator and his ability to guide this squad to the 2015 World Cup starts here. The other matter that can’t be ignored from an Irish perspective is the looming retirement of their talisman, Brian O’Driscoll. The crowd at the Aviva would love nothing more that to see the influential centre end his sublime career on a high. That has to start with a win on Sunday and O’Driscoll should be at the heart of it. No surprises either if the chant, ‘one more year’, echoes around the Aviva on Sunday evening.

Verdict: Ireland 10+

Player Watch: Stuart Hogg has been a revelation at full back for Scotland, much like his Welsh counterpart Halfpenny, he can be devastating in open play and he has an ability to read the game ahead of others. Brian O’Driscoll has nothing left to prove on the playing field, although he is not captain, he leads by example and will undoubtedly be the go to man when Ireland need a surge of ambition this year. He oozes class and will be instrumental if Ireland are to have a realistic goal of claiming this year’s championship.

Image courtesy of Rugbyrugby.com

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