Ex-Munster and Leicester player analyses the main battle points in the Six Nations opener
February is back around and the Six Nations are upon us again. However this year, there is a totally different dynamic to the championship.
One of the oldest international competitions in the rugby world has moved into the professional game and will now be using a bonus point system for the first time. Some rugby purists not might be happy but personally I believe it is a good thing. It will encourage teams to play more and force them to put themselves into a position where they can go in search of that bonus point.
These changes to the point system are something I feel will suit Scotland and their style of play. Especially with the Glasgow influence that runs throughout the side.
Their back three are fantastic on the counter-attack. Stuart Hogg poses a huge threat from the backfield. With Seymour and Maitland alongside him, it is one of their most dangerous units and a unit Ireland will need to keep quiet. The battle of the back threes is something I am really looking forward to. Both individually and collectively they are going to go after each other. All six players will have one eye on a lion’s spot, with all but one already being a lion.
The aerial battle is something I have spoken about before when looking at Ireland. It is something they use to great effect. It can swing momentum so quickly. If Ireland can dominate in this area, it will go a long way to stopping one of Scotland’s main areas of strength. If Scotland do manage to gain control here, they will be able to launch their counter-attack game and get their most dangerous runners into the game. This will go a long way to gaining a foothold within the game.
Conor Murray, Simon Zebo and Robbie Henshaw ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Another key battle for me will be the at 13. Two young men just starting on their international careers. Gary Ringrose is in great form and really stood up during the Autumn Series. He has shown his robustness especially in defence throughout that series and continued that in the Champions Cup. Every time he touches the ball there is a sense of anticipation and excitement as to what will happen next. He has been so close to making numerous line breaks but has just been held up at vital moments as he has been about to power through a gap.
His partnership with Robbie Henshaw is growing on a day-to-day basis in Leinster and will hopefully shine through on the international stage now.
I feel Ireland have the upper hand in this area due the fact that Huw Jones and Alex Dunbarr’s pairing is so new. Jones was relatively unknown when picked to tour Japan last summer and then making his debut in the Autumn Series. They can only build connections with each other when in national camp and this is something that has to influence the whole backline's performance. It might be a case that their backline will improve with every game but it could be a good time to get them before this combination has time to gel.
For me the battle that will really decide the game is the one between the two scrumhalves. Conor Murray is playing the rugby of his career. So much of Ireland's play is run through his hands. He is of vital importance to the kicking game. Laidlaw holds the same standing within the Scottish set up. What both of them do extremely well is take the pressure off their respective 10’s. They control the tempo of the game from the base of the ruck and make each side tick.
Ian Keatley ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan
The targeting of Conor Murray during the Champions cup by Glasgow players was clear for all to see. It at times went too far but this type of tactic unfortunately comes with the territory of being one of the world’s best players. This is going to add a lot of bite to Saturday’s fixture and will ensure some good old school niggle around ruck time.
Scotland is a side that will improve throughout the competition and if there is no Grand Slam they have an outside chance of sneaking a championship with the bonus system. I feel that having Scotland in the first game is a good thing and for me it's Ireland to win in a high scoring/one score game.
On a personal note I’m delighted to see the inclusion of my old roommate and friend Ian Keatley. He has been under scrutiny over the last nine months but Saturday's inclusion is a great example that hard work, commitment to the team and resilience really does pay off.