Dupont is likely to be the star player. Dave Winter/INPHO

Know your enemy: the lowdown on Ireland’s Six Nations opponents

We run the rule over the five teams Ireland will face in this year’s Six Nations.


For all the talk about England’s injury crisis, sometimes the devil really is in the detail. So think back to England’s win over the Springboks in November, and look closely at the team sheet. Yes, Manu Tualagi started that game, but it ended for him just eight minutes later. Otherwise we are more or less guaranteed to see the same backline next week in Murrayfield that we saw dethrone the world champions 10 weeks ago.

Yes, Jonny May is currently out with a knee injury but May has been out of form and wouldn’t have started against the Scots anyway. Henry Slade, the scourge of Ireland in 2019, will play a bigger part in this tournament than he has in previous ones; Joe Marchant is another centre set for a prominent role while Marcus Smith’s trickery more than compensates for Owen Farrell’s absence.

Eddie Jones can no longer ignore Harlequins. When Farrell was injured in the autumn, he had to take a different tack, selecting players with the skill to unlock doors rather than rely on bruisers to kick it down. The irony is that on a cold, wet Edinburgh day, the former policy is often better than the latter one.

Still, this latest reinvention of the England squad is probably a good thing, as Jones possesses that Jose Mourinho quality of ruffling feathers in his first season, winning in his second and then losing his way in his third. Remarkably he is in his seventh year with England now – his longest stint anywhere – surviving by constantly tinkering with his backroom staff and playing squad.

There’s a lot to like about his new attack coach, Martin Gleeson, who came out of rugby league, while Richard Cockerill’s appearance on the coaching ticket reminds you of the joke Martin O’Neill told when he announced that Roy Keane was to be his assistant with Ireland. “I’m the bad cop; he’s the bad, bad cop.”

Actually, Cockerill is quite a cheery character, despite his hard-as-nails reputation, and he certainly won’t be afraid to stand up to Jones which is what the Australian, and by extension, England need.

They also need a win in their opening game away to Scotland to have any chance of winning the championship because Paris is on the horizon and they won’t win there. Selection wise, Jones has always been definite in what he wants and there is no question he is looking at the World Cup rather than this Six Nations. That’s all well and good. But what if they lose to the Scots, also to Ireland and France, and post yet another bottom-half finish? Will there be an outcry? You bet.

Missing Farrell the converted centre will be less an issue than missing Farrell the leader. There is a shortage of those for Jones to turn to in the dressing room. That suggests an inconsistent campaign. Again.

Grand Slams: 13 (last in 2016)

Key game: Scotland away

Key player: Marcus Smith

Prediction: Third

marcus-smith-celebrates-after-the-game Thumbs up for Smith; thumbs down for England's chances. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO


Here is a stat. In the final game of last season’s Six Nations championship, Wales had over 1000 caps on the pitch but by the time they rock up in the Aviva Stadium next Saturday, 680 of those will be missing.

In other words, no Alun Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Justin Tipuric, Josh Navidi, Taulupe Faletau or George North really translates into no hope for the Welsh, especially when you add in the additional absentees, Leigh Halfpenny, Dan Lydiate, Jonny Williams (all injured), Cory Hill – now in Japan – and Jake Ball – now in Australia.

Take seven British and Irish Lions out of the Ireland squad and you know it’ll hurt. In Wales – where the production line is not as slick – the pain is greater. A decade has passed since they last won a Six Nations game in Dublin and you can’t see that record improving in six days-time.

You can predict a horrific campaign, possibly one where they end up with just a win over Italy, although their home record against the Scots and France is strong. In November, they produced some mixed performances, playing well enough in defeat to South Africa, averagely in victory over 14-man Australia, maddeningly in the win over Fiji. New Zealand humiliated them.

Bizarrely, given how he guided them to a championship last season, the Welsh jury remains out on Wayne Pivac whose appointment was largely based on the entertaining brand of rugby his Scarlets side of 2016-18 produced. In contrast, Pivac’s Wales have been as dull as the Gatland version but not as effective. A miserable spring awaits.

Grand Slams: 12 (last one in 2019)

Key game: Home v Scotland, round two

Key player: Louis Rees-Zammit

Prediction: Fifth

louis-rees-zammit-during-the-warm-up Rees Lightning - the Wales winger. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO


Seven years and counting since their last Six Nations win, it is hard to avoid being either damning or patronising towards the Italians. Yes, they have some decent young players coming through but so has everyone else. The fact that Kieran Crowley has reached out to England trio, Alex Lozowski, Paolo Odogwu and Louis Lynagh, to switch international allegiance, is telling.

Italy need a deeper squad and Lozowski, the 28-year-old Saracens playmaker, qualifies for Italy through a grandparent whereas Lynagh was born there.

“I have been in contact with them,” Italy coach, Kieran Crowley, said. “I haven’t personally [spoken] with Paolo, but he has been contacted. The other two I’ve spoken to personally. We’ve discussed it and they’ve made decisions I respect 100 per cent.”

It’s not unlike Crowley to think outside the box. A fascinating character, he guided the New Zealand Under-19 team to World Cup success in 2007, before uprooting his family and shifting them halfway around the world to coach in ….. Canada.

The decision seemed to lack logic but when the position arose in 2008, Crowley saw something of himself in the amateur players who juggled their working lives with a sporting passion.

Once he had been that player, a prodigy who played representative rugby with Taranaki as a teenager, who was just 22 when he first played for New Zealand, who combined work on the family farm with a rugby career that brought him 19 Test appearances with the All Blacks and trips to two World Cups.

“My upbringing established the values and characteristics I think I now bring to coaching. It taught me the value of honesty, hard work and flexibility.”

It is just as well. Managing Canada was all about managing expectations. Italy is no different. They aren’t likely to win a game in this tournament. “We’re up against most of the best sides in the world,” Crowley said.

That’s true, leaving Crowley with the task of winning respect and losing bonus points. Anything beyond that would be a minor miracle – a bit like the idea of a club like Treviso winning a major competition. Oh, that happened last season. The guy who guided them to the trophy? A certain Kieran Crowley.

Grand Slams: 0

Key game: Home versus Scotland (round four)

Key player: Paolo Garbisi

Prediction: Sixth

paolo-garbisi Garbisi in action for Italy against Uruguay. Giuseppe Fama / INPHO Giuseppe Fama / INPHO / INPHO


It’s worth point out that under Gregor Townsend, Scotland have lost just one of their last four championship games against England. It’s also worth pointing out that they have never finished higher than third in the same timeframe.

That’s where they are: middle of the road, capable of beating almost anyone (although not Ireland since 2017) but also capable of losing to almost anyone. By round three they are as likely to be zero from three – after home games against England and France, with a trip to Cardiff the meat in that particular sandwich – as they are to be unbeaten and on course for a championship.

In a sense, they sum up the beauty of this tournment. Even though they haven’t won the competition since 1999, they’ve ruined plenty of parties: England’s grand slam bid in 2000, Ireland’s Triple Crown quest in 2010. Four of their last five Murrayfield games against France have ended in victory and while we don’t anticipate that record stretching to five from six, you can’t rule anything out

 “Let’s see how we do against England and Wales and where we are in the championship after that,” said Townsend. “We’ve had experiences, we’ve got the players and we have the belief to do as well as we’ve ever done. But we know the teams around us are all playing very well. They showed that in November, so it’ll be as big a challenge as ever, even more so.”

With more strength in depth than ever, Townsend is confident.

“I say to the players to be themselves when they come here,” he said. “Bring out your strengths and in this environment that means you can be yourselves here.”

Is that enough to upset the odds? In one or two games perhaps – but that’s their lot. Middle of the road is where they are destined to remain.

Grand Slams: 3 (last in 1990)

Key game: Home versus England (round one)

Key player: Stuart Hogg

Prediction: Fourth


They have so much going for them; youth, unity, discipline (for once), home advantage at the 2023 World Cup and a half-back in Antoine Dupont whose excellence is consistently applied. If you are a Scot, Springbok or Irish fan, ask yourself a question. After what we saw against New Zealand in November, who would you rather face in the 2023 World Cup quarter-final, the All Blacks or a resurgent France backed by a raucous home support?

“You know, France are sitting at the top of the tree in the Six Nations, red-hot favourites, expected to win, and if they don’t the French rugby public is going to be disappointed,” Eddie Jones said a little mischievously this week.

He is not the only one backing them, Kieran Crowley calling them the ‘team of the moment’. Twelve years have passed since they last won this competition and while you know every team – bar Italy – could seriously test them over the next couple of months, you also sense their time is coming, not just in this year’s Six Nations but also in next year’s World Cup. 

Grand Slams: 9 (last in 2010)

Key game: Home versus Ireland (round two)

Key player: Antoine Dupont

Prediction: Championship and grand slam winners

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel