If you have ever watched coverage of the Six Nations Championship through an Irish, British, French, or Italian broadcaster, you will appreciate just how romantic and revered this tournament is. Well, to them, of course. Your average, casual rugby fan may be unaware of the historical significances and traditional relevance behind this championship, but it can be extremely enjoyable, nonetheless.
Instituted in 1883 as the Home Nations Championship, Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales were the original participants. France joined in 1910, with the championship being rebranded as the Five Nations, before Italy’s inclusion in 2000 forced another change of name (and the prospect of an enjoyable trip to Rome for players and fans, alike). Despite the changes and as the tournament progresses, year after year, it has not lost any of its charms.
2019’s version of the tournament is as eagerly anticipated as any that had preceded it. The favorites, Ireland, look set to establish themselves as the number 1 ranked team in the world, should results go their way, as expected. Joe Schmidt’s men have enjoyed the greatest period in the history of Irish rugby, ending 2018 on a high with the second victory over the dominant All Blacks in three games.
Surely, Ireland is the team to beat in 2019’s installment of the “greatest rugby tournament in the world.” With England and France’s erratic form, Scotland’s inconsistencies, and Italy’s status as perennial whipping boys, it looks very likely that the “Men in Green” will win back to back Six Nations titles and put themselves in pole position ahead of the World Cup in 2019. Oh, but we must not forget about Wales. These guys have a huge chance of upsetting the apple cart.
Ireland leads the pack, priced at a modest -120 by SportsBetting.Ag. The hugely successful year enjoyed by the Irish team has led to bookies slashing the odds on Joe Schmidt’s men repeating 2018 with a championship win. In order for this to happen, Ireland will, once again, need to be firing on all cylinders, especially since they now have huge targets painted on their backs.
England are priced at a very reasonable +300, which is bound to suit Eddie Jones and his players down to the ground. The English enjoyed an upturn in fortunes in the Autumn, coming within an official’s decision of beating New Zealand. Wales, as I will cover later, are poised to challenge Ireland for the title, in my opinion, and are very nicely priced at +450. Scotland are not given a great deal of hope at +1200, whereas Italy’s price of +50000 asks more about what they are still doing in the championship rather than how they expect to win it.
As with most sports tournaments, home and away counts for a lot in the Six Nations. The favorites, Ireland, will host both England and France in Dublin but must travel to Edinburgh and Cardiff in two games that will be tricky, to say the least.
France v Wales – Friday, Feb 1, Paris
Scotland v Italy – Saturday, Feb 2, Edinburgh
Ireland v England – Saturday, Feb 2, Dublin
Scotland v Ireland – Saturday, Feb 9, Edinburgh
Italy v Wales – Saturday, Feb 9, Rome
England v France – Sunday, Feb 10, Twickenham
France v Scotland – Saturday, Feb 23, Paris
Wales v England – Saturday, Feb 23, 4.45pm, Cardiff
Italy v Ireland – Sunday, Feb 24, Rome
Scotland v Wales – Saturday, Mar 9, Edinburgh
England v Italy – Saturday, Mar 9, Twickenham
Ireland v France – Sunday, Mar 10, Dublin
Italy v France – Saturday, Mar 16, Rome
Wales v Ireland – Saturday, Mar 16, Cardiff
England v Scotland – Saturday, Mar 16, Twickenham
While the victory over New Zealand was the final play of the year, the biggest story in Irish rugby as we approached 2019 was the news that Joe Schmidt had decided to retire. The New Zealander had overseen a radical transition in the country’s rugby setup, galvanizing the Dublin-based Leinster into the best team in Europe. With the departure of Declan Kidney in 2013, Schmidt took over the international squad.
The influence of Schmidt profoundly influenced the fortunes of the team, who were regarded as talented but grossly inconsistent. At the 2015 World Cup, the boss was unable to take Ireland further than the quarter-finals, where the nation has almost always crashed out. Still, the injury-laden team’s heavy loss to a spirited Argentina forced Schmidt to go back to the drawing board. The young players he has brought through have contributed an immense strength in depth that has been essential to their success.
2018 was the year when everything came together for Ireland. World Player of the Year Johnny Sexton has been vastly instrumental in taking the team to the dizzy heights they now occupy. His incredible drop goal effort against France in the dying seconds of Ireland’s opening game of the tournament epitomized just how important he is to the team. The rampaging effort of the forwards to get him there summed up that this is a unit.
With other talismanic figures like Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, and Taidgh Furlong, there is plenty of leadership on the park. The young brilliance of Jacob Stockdale, James Ryan, Gary Ringrose, and Dan Leavy gives Ireland the perfect blend of youth and experience. There is so much depth in the team that most positions, especially the halfbacks and centres, are stacked with exceptional talent.
What Ireland proved this year, especially against New Zealand, is that they are now perennial winners. Having long carried the cross of near misses, almost criminal capitulations, and the unwanted tag of chokers, the Irish brutalized the All Blacks and got right in their faces. Whereas they would have likely panicked and lost the game in the dying moments a la 2013, this time, they went for blood.
This is partly why the Irish have been able to go through the entire year losing just one game. Aside from a seminal victory over New Zealand, they won the Grand Slam in 2018, and a first test series against Australia down under (after losing the first test). Pure verve, absolute confidence, and true belief are just a few things that set this crop of Irish players apart from those of yesteryear, including the “Golden Generation” of the early 2000s.
Pressure should not be a problem for Ireland. This is not a team that will fear any of the others in the tournament. Of course, they will be cautious and exercise the right amount of consideration for the talents of England, Wales, France, Scotland, and (to a lesser extent) Italy. Some might say complacency could be an issue, but I disagree with that: Ireland have that covered, too, and this is why this team is special.
If Ireland has aspirations of becoming just the second Northern Hemisphere team (after England) to win a World Cup, they will need to have that psychological edge. Other teams must fear them, completely, and the other countries in 2019’s Six Nations certainly do. The physicality, skill, discipline, and multi-faceted plays that Ireland incorporate into their game makes them a very tough nut to crack.
Ireland vs. Wales is arguably the most heated and competitive fixture in the Six Nations Championship these days. There is a genuine rivalry that has emerged in the past decade or so that has seen this particular fixture become the most important to both teams. While England were once the team that both Ireland and Wales wanted to get one up on more than any other, for most of the Irish and Welsh players and fans, it is, well, Ireland or Wales.
In the past 20 fixtures between both sides – including World Cup games and warmups – Ireland have won 11, with Wales winning 8 and one of those games, in 2016, ending in a draw. Ireland have seen their Grand Slam and championship hopes ended by Wales over the past few years, with 2015’s heroic efforts – with a little bit of help from Wayne Barnes – denying Ireland a Grand Slam.
This year, I believe that Wales hold the keys to stopping Ireland in their tracks. With England set to travel to Dublin – a place they probably detest more than anywhere – a trip for the Irish to Cardiff in the last game of the tournament looks like the biggest banana skin. That said, Ireland have traditionally enjoyed playing the Welsh in Cardiff and have been successful on many occasions in recent times. Brian O’Driscoll and co. won their first Grand Slam in what felt like light-years there, of course, back in 2009.
Wales’s Warren Gatland, the former Irish boss, will understand just how significant this game is. The New Zealander will finally walk away from the team after the World Cup in 2019, effectively making this his final ever Six Nations. What better way to thank the most successful boss in Wales’ living memory than with a championship win in Cardiff on the final round of the tournament?
Make no mistake, the first weekend of the tournament sees Ireland host England and the English will be desperate to put their recent poor form to an end in Dublin. However, Ireland seem to have the English team’s number and will likely be too physical for what Eddie Jones has in store for the men in green. Ireland’s record in Dublin is excellent – they have not lost a home game in almost 5 years in the Six Nations, so England will need something special.
Wales, on the other hand, are quite often Ireland’s Achilles heel. Cardiff’s Principality Stadium is an absolute cauldron on matchdays, and the loud, hostile atmosphere will be just what Wales need if they are chasing a championship – or even a Grand Slam – by the time Ireland arrives on March 16, just one day before St Patrick’s Day. Wales, like England, will need a huge performance to win.
As long as the Welsh play the expansive and attractive rugby that they have shown of late, Ireland will also have their work cut out. The Dragons had a pretty good year in 2018, finishing second in the Six Nations before completing a whitewash in Argentina, and wins over Australia and South Africa in the Autumn Series. Confidence is very high and Wales are dangerous when they have their chins in the air.
Of course, physicality will be a huge factor in this game. Wales are not the biggest or strongest team out there, but they are savvy operators and renowned for their work around the breakdown and in the ruck. Having lost the talismanic Sam Warburton to retirement, they will be hoping that the very talented Justin Tipuric can come good and form that solid back row with Dan Lydiate and Taulupe Faletau. Rhys Patchell’s injury means that they will need to sort out their problems at 10, too.
I believe that Ireland will prove to everyone in the game just how good they are with a Grand Slam. When England come to visit on the opening round of the tournament, Ireland will be too smart and savvy for them to handle. Even with progress in the Autumn Series, England still have a lot of work to do before they can instill confidence in fans of a Six Nations Championship title, but make no mistake about it, they will be up there.
In my opinion, England will offer something of a test to Ireland in the first game before being blown away in the second half. By that time, we will know the result of Wales’ trip to France, which will be a test that many in Wales have seem to have written off as a win without a ball being kicked. France hold the potential to shock everyone in 2019 and play a style of rugby that can beat Wales, especially in Paris.
Ireland have both England and France at home, which, at one time, was the most favorable way for fixtures to fall on for the Irish. With two wins from two in these games – and a win over Scotland at Murrayfield – Ireland will have done the hard work prior to meeting Wales for what could be the deciding game of the championship in 2019. No disrespect to Italy, but that is a game that Ireland should win comfortably.
If Wales can win their first four matches – and Ireland can do the same – we will be faced with one of the biggest Six Nations games in living memory. While I can see Wales beating anyone on their day, I do believe that they are not quite the final product and could fall to any of the aforementioned teams. I would not be surprised if it was Scotland, believe it or not.
In my humble opinion, if it does indeed come down to the final game between an unbeaten Ireland and an unbeaten Wales, the latter will have the advantage, to most observers. If you ever get the chance to visit the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, you will understand exactly why they will be perceived as having the upper hand. Yet, somehow, Ireland seem to respond to pressure as a team and this could, ironically, work in their favor.
Ireland, man for man, are a better team than their Welsh cousins. They have a better pack, are more proficient in the lineout, have a backrow that are at least capable enough of dealing with the Welsh, and some outstanding backs. While the men in red do have players that would likely make it into the Irish team, like Jonathan Davies, for example, I believe that practically every single player, bar Rob Kearney, would walk into the Welsh side.
On paper, Ireland have more than enough to win their second Grand Slam in a row and establish themselves as the number 1 team in the IRB World Rankings. This is a special team who are riding extremely high on confidence. The depth in the squad is awesome, too, meaning that there is an exceptional level of replacements for almost every position on the field.
Prediction: Ireland to win the Grand Slam with a 35-14 win over Wales
According to my prediction, Ireland will win all five games towards the Grand Slam. Wales will be the second best team in the tournament, finishing 2nd, while England, Scotland, France, and Italy will make up the rest of the standings – in that order – after the final round of the tournament. Of course, with the closing gap between the best teams becoming ever the more evident as the years go by (yes, with the exception of Italy), there is a lot to suggest that any of 5 teams can win the Six Nations with luck and the right approach.
Ireland are some way ahead of England, Wales, France, and Scotland, but certainly not enough to suggest that the tournament is a foregone conclusion. Had Johnny Sexton missed that kick last year against France, Ireland would not have won the Grand Slam, and this could have even affected their chances of winning the championship. This is professional sports, and a whole host of things can happen when two teams run onto the field.
Given the strength of Schmidt’s men this year, however, any team that manages to finish above the Men in Green certainly deserves any and all plaudits that will invariably come their way.
Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment.