Six Nations: Pundits, journalists and players have their say

Will there be a Grand Slam? Who will break out? What one thing would you change?

Ireland rugby head coach Andy Farrell and captain Johnny Sexton discuss the upcoming Six Nations tournament, lingering regrets from the World Cup in Japan and the decision to appoint Sexton as captain. Video: Six Nations

 

Gordon D’Arcy – Rugby columnist and former Leinster, Ireland, Lions

Will there be a Grand Slam? Failing that which country will win the championship?

Pains me to say it but it feels like England’s year. The game plan is still relevant from the World Cup with a strong spine of players that Eddie Jones will mix up with some new faces. The pain of losing that final to South Africa should be another source of motivation for the group.

How will Ireland go in Andy Farrell’s first campaign?

After some bumps along the way I expect a positive finish for Ireland. They have regressed significantly in a short space of time but the team that beat New Zealand in 2018 is largely still together. If Farrell can find a common motivator to harness the frustration from 2019 I believe we will see future success.

Which new player (non-Irish) will we be talking/writing about?

Louis Rees-Zammit if he gets game time. It’s remarkable that we are talking about this Welsh teenager but he keeps scoring tries for Gloucester. Great to see Wayne Privac maintaining Gatty’s approach to young talent. He picked me at 19!

Gloucester’s Louis Rees-Zammit could be a breakthrough star. Photo: Bob Bradford - CameraSport via Getty Images
Gloucester’s Louis Rees-Zammit could be a breakthrough star. Photo: Bob Bradford - CameraSport via Getty Images

And a breakthrough Ireland player?

I believe Caelan Doris (21) can replicate Sam Underhill and Tom Curry for impact on the international scene. Doris is constantly proving that age is but a number.

What are you most looking forward to?

Always Ireland v England where I’m expecting sparks to fly at Twickenham. However, I’m most interested in Wales v France, a game for rugby purest down through the years, with last season proving no different as Wales came back from 16-0 down at half-time to win 24-19.

If you could alter one aspect of the Six Nations.

Nothing. It is a beautiful tournament. Perhaps have a second tier Six Nations running parallel so Georgia et al can benefit from the exposure.

Gavin Cummiskey – Irish Times sportswriter

Will there be a Grand Slam? Failing that which country will win the championship?

An English victory in Paris can set them up for another slam but Shaun Edwards’ defensive structures could soften Eddie Jones’ cough. France’s investment in a new generation of potential superstars from Demba Bamba to Romain Ntamack can spark Les Bleus long awaited climb towards world domination.

How will Ireland go in Andy Farrell’s first campaign?

I expect Mike Catt’s offence to replicate Leinster, which would not be a major deviation from his own philosophy according to Stuart Lancaster, but finishing second depends on victory at Twickenham or Stade de France. Tall order but four wins must be the minimum expectation.

Ireland’s new attack coach Mike Catt and forwards coach Simon Easterby. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Ireland’s new attack coach Mike Catt and forwards coach Simon Easterby. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Which new player (non-Irish) will we be talking/writing about?

Virimi Vakatawa, the 27-year-old French-Fijian, is hardly new but he can dominate this championship. Unstoppable for Racing 92 in Europe, go low and he’ll throw a spectacular offload, go high and he can humiliate the biggest of men.

And a breakthrough Ireland player?

Bringing Ryan Baird and Harry Byrne to Portugal is an inspired call by Farrell but this latest St Michael’s duo will probably not breakthrough until 2021. For Ireland to move past the World Cup misery Jordan Larmour and Andrew Porter must go from bench contributors to central figures.

What are you most looking forward to?

Ideally, Ireland in Paris attempting to snatch the title and deny France a Grand Slam in one fell swoop. Failing that, Farrell’s press conferences out in lovely Abbotstown.

If you could alter one aspect of the Six Nations . . .

Change is a good way to destroy the Six Nations’ unique place in global sport. There has been enough tinkering with bonus points and scheduling. Yes, Italy are a joke with one win in six years but can anyone honestly make the case for Georgia? After seeing them at the World Cup I think not. Leave it alone.

Ruth Gorman – UTV Sports Correspondent

Will there be a Grand Slam? Failing that which country will win the championship?

I’m not convinced there’ll be a Grand Slam won this year but I think England have the best chance of winning the championship. Although Billy Vunipola will be missed, they have strength in depth with quality players throughout the squad and they also have the most continuity with Eddie Jones staying on.

How will Ireland go in Andy Farrell’s first campaign?

Andy has the advantage of having been around the set up for a while now. He will know the damage the World Cup caused to the players involved, it’s now about getting confidence back into the side. There was a fear factor in Japan and the players now need to find the right method of play that allows them to express themselves.

Which new player (non-Irish) will we be talking/writing about?

Whoever steps in at number eight for England. Exeter’s Sam Simmonds has been a standout performer in Europe this season. It’s also worth noting France have 19 uncapped players in their squad and they’ve won the last two under-20 World Cups so I’ve no doubt we’ll be talking about one or two of them.

And a breakthrough Ireland player?

John Cooney. The Ulster scrumhalf deserves all the plaudits he’s been getting. He’s been delivering week in, week out and not just with his boot. The number nine has scored nine tries and is the top points scorer in Europe. The disappointment of not making the World Cup squad fuelled the fire in his belly.

Ulster’s John Cooney could play a key part. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Ulster’s John Cooney could play a key part. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

What are you most looking forward to?

England v Ireland on February 23rd. Off the back of two heavy defeats to Eddie Jones’ side last year this will be a good indication to see where Ireland are at. Ireland haven’t won at Twickenham too often but those players returning to the scene of the Grand Slam two years ago will know how good it feels when they do.

If you could alter one aspect of the Six Nations . . .

A potential relegation/promotion between the Six Nations and the Rugby Europe Championship might work well. It would mean there is something to play for in every game and would help the likes of Georgia progress as a rugby nation if they were to come up.

Matt Williams – Irish Times columnist and former Leinster, Ulster and Scotland coach

Will there be a Grand Slam? Failing that which country will win the championship?

England have the inside running. Finishing as runners-up at the World Cup will have given them a lot of confidence. With high quality, experienced players across their team and a quality coach in Eddie Jones they will be very hard to beat. They also possess a match winner and the best outhalf in the world in Owen Farrell.

How will Ireland go in Andy Farrell’s first campaign?

Ireland have the playing talent to win the championship but we don’t know if they have the game plan to maximise the playing groups potential. There’s no doubt that since Joe Schmidt’s plans went wrong in 2019, the appointment of Farrell has been seen as a gamble for the IRFU. A good start against Scotland with an obvious change of plan is paramount.

Which new player (non-Irish) will we be talking/writing about?

Antoine Dupont, Virimi Vakatawa, Thomas Ramos and Romain Ntamack will form the heart of a fast, skilful and hungry French backline. These Fab Four French backs were first selected last season, but this championship will see them storming onto our screens and fields.

And a breakthrough Ireland player?

Ronan Kelleher is an athletic, rugby minded hooker in the Keith Wood mould. He has a high percentage high quality lineout throw and he is an excellent scrummager. Also, he’s a strong runner with a quality offloading game and hits hard in defence. A big future awaits.

What are you most looking forward to?

The French call their match against England “Le Crunch.” This year’s crunch is the opener in Paris. A new look France and a new coaching staff has given this French side the kind of professional preparation that has been lacking for so long – it should be a cracker of a match.

England and France could be a cracker. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho
England and France could be a cracker. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

If you could alter one aspect of the Six Nations . . .

I would like to see a week’s break between each of the five rounds so the players get the recovery they require. This would allow a match to be played on Friday night, followed by one on Saturday and Sunday. This would provide a level playing field for all the teams to give a full weekend’s entertainment.

Johnny Watterson – Irish Times sportswriter

Will there be a Grand Slam? Failing that which country will win the championship?

England, on both counts, because of what they are. Their game against New Zealand in the World Cup was one of the most pyrotechnic shows in many years. That potential has not gone away and when they get it right no team will live with their size and pace across the park.

How will Ireland go in Andy Farrell’s first campaign?

The players will be up for impressing him. But he needs to make changes. He needs to bring through younger players and he has done in the 35-man squad. The cut for the match against Scotland will tell how he’s thinking. With games away to France and England, a mid-table finish.

Which new player (non-Irish) will we be talking/writing about?

Wales’ Louis Rees-Zammit broke into the Gloucester senior team this season becoming the club’s youngest ever Premiership player. In December he became the first 18 year-old to score a hat-trick of tries. What’s not to like?

And a breakthrough Ireland player?

Leinster’s Max Deegan. He has always been a quality player. He’s been picking up man of the match awards in recent games, is athletic, mobile and over the last few years made himself stronger.

What are you most looking forward to?

Ireland playing to their strengths in an uninhibited way and that doesn’t mean cavalier. The end days of Schmidt were strictly controlled and the players fearful. The team needs to breathe. Encourage Ringrose, Larmour, Stockdale et al to do what they are good at.

Ireland will need Garry Ringrose to be at his best. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Ireland will need Garry Ringrose to be at his best. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

If you could alter one aspect of the Six Nations . . .

Ah look, start it a month later to try and get spring weather. Granted the modern pitches hold up much better now. But there is nothing to love about slanty rain in Edinburgh or freezing while the scrum is reset three times. Tradition, European Cup, summer tour be damned.

Sene Naoupu – Leinster and Ireland player

Will there be a Grand Slam? Failing that which country will win the championship?

For the men’s side I’ll back our boys. Ireland to win the title but maybe not the Slam.

How will Ireland go in Andy Farrell’s first campaign?

There were some valuable lessons that they have learned in Japan that we will see they have learned throughout this year.

Which new player (non-Irish) will we be talking/writing about?

From my view in the backline it is always about going up against England playmaker Katy McLean and of course Emily Scarratt.

And a breakthrough Ireland player?

We have a young forward in Dorothy Wall who is one of our back rowers that got a run out against Wales and did very well. We also have the exciting Enya Breen at 13 who I’ve really enjoyed playing with in training.

Keep an eye out for Munster and Ireland’s Dorothy Wall. Photo: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Keep an eye out for Munster and Ireland’s Dorothy Wall. Photo: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

What are you most looking forward to?

If selected, representing Ireland in that first match against Scotland at Energia Park at 1pm on Sunday February 2nd. And I’m looking forward to seeing how the Guinness campaign to rally support for the women’s game by getting as many pubs as possible to televise our games turns out.

If you could alter one aspect of the Six Nations . . .

I’m pretty open minded, so what would it be like if we played in the summer as a separate entity to the men’s Six Nations? It could increase the commercial support, fans and participation rates as summer fixture might be more accessible to everyone.

John O’Sullivan – Irish Times sportswriter

Will there be a Grand Slam? Failing that which country will win the championship?

No Grand Slam. France under Fabien Galthie and with Shaun Edwards as the new defence coach could be an interesting proposition if those two can get a buy in from a talented group of players that offers a nice blend of youthful talent and hard-nosed experience. They have England and Ireland in Paris.

How will Ireland go in Andy Farrell’s first campaign?

A reasonable campaign for the new coaching regime would be to win the three home games and be competitive in the trips to London and Paris. If they could nick one of those it would elevate the achievement but some new faces and developing the gameplan will command the initial interest.

Which new player (non-Irish) will we be talking/writing about?

Toulon’s 21-year-old wing sensation Gervais Cordin, who has earned a call-up to the French squad, is a silken runner with mesmerising footwork, the French version of Jordan Larmour. If that materialises expect the headline, ‘Tricky Gervais’ to follow.

Gervais Cordin scores a try during last year’s under-20 Six Nations. Photo: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Gervais Cordin scores a try during last year’s under-20 Six Nations. Photo: Bryan Keane/Inpho

And a breakthrough Ireland player?

If he recovers from a hand injury then Ronan Kelleher has all the qualities required to play and excel in test rugby.

What are you most looking forward to?

It would normally be Paris in the springtime, but the 9pm kick off local time takes away massively from the occasion.

If you could alter one aspect of the Six Nations . . .

Establish a consensus between players, coaches and officials to try and speed up the set piece, the TMO referrals and the preamble to box-kicking. Referees shouting ‘use it’ should mean exactly that, not the player taking another three seconds.

Gerry Thornley – Irish Times Rugby Correspondent

Will there be a Grand Slam? Failing that which country will win the championship?

The Sarries affair could destabilise the English squad, but if not they carry the best World Cup form and have finished in top two for eight of the last nine years. Put another way, anyone who finishes above them probably wins it.

How will Ireland go in Andy Farrell’s first campaign?

Three home wins would probably constitute an acceptable threshold, and should keep Ireland in the mix. There’s still more than enough talent for a shot at the title to be realistic.

Which new player (non-Irish) will we be talking/writing about?

Matthieu Jalibert’s debut at 19 against Ireland in 2018 lasted just 30 minutes. A recurrence of a cruciate injury sidelined him for 18 months – the last two years might have been different for France. An outhalf with real French flair.

And a breakthrough Ireland player?

Caelan Doris and Max Deegan are banging on the door. Doris’s game and physicality have gone up a level. Then again, CJ Stander may restrict his/their chances.

What are you most looking forward to?

Ireland v Scotland next week when everything is possible, watching Johnny Sexton captaining Ireland and, if it comes to it, the title on the line in Paris on March 14th. Ah, the whole jamboree really.

If you could alter one aspect of the Six Nations . . .

No Sunday games in Twickenham, when Ireland play there! No Saturday night kick-offs in Paris . . . when Ireland play there! Apart from that, all good.

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