Six Changes for Ireland’s Six Nations

Posted: January 5, 2016 in Uncategorized

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With the RBS Six Nations fast approaching, Joe Schmidt faces two challenges. The first is overcoming last year’s World Cup hangover. The second is winning the tournament. Here are six changes Schmidt will need to incorporate into the Irish setup to win this year’s competition.

1. Find a centre partnership.
Before and throughout the World Cup, we saw Schmidt trial a number of partnerships, with Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne becoming the first choice pair for the Cup. Both fine players, but lacking some spark. We’re not going to talk about filling O’Driscoll’s boots here (that point was talked to death a long time ago) but the best teams in the world all have one thing in common; their centre partnerships are excellent.

Look at Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, or Matt Giteau and Tevita Kurindrani. What have they in common? They’re not Brad Barrett and Sam Burgess. With Payne injured, a 13 is needed. Luckily enough, one is already playing fantastic rugby this season. His name is Luke Fitzgerald. Not to mention Garry Ringrose is an extremely versatile player who could replace him from the bench. How about Stuart McCloskey at 12? He’s also playing out of his skin for Ulster. A good training camp and who knows? If Schmidt is looking to win a World Cup in four years time, these players need playing time.

2. Start the in-form 10.
Johnny Sexton hasn’t been the same since returning from France. He is disgruntled, unhappy, and out of form to the point that he is not even Leinster’s in-form 10 at the moment. The man who should pull the strings in Ireland’s first game against Wales is, at the moment, Paddy Jackson.

He hasn’t had a lot of game time for his country, nor had he a big fan base outside of Ulster. He’s smaller than the other Irish 10’s and some like to say he relies too much on Ruan Pienaar. But he is kicking well, both out of hand and from the tee, and is inspiring Ulster to play smart, confident, attractive rugby.

3. Incorporate an off-loading game. Simple side to side game plans are by far the easiest to defend. Defenses get used to it after a few minutes and good teams can almost predict where the ball will go after a while. But the hardest thing to defend is an offload.

Attackers running into the tackle area and receiving a pass is almost always guaranteed yards for the attacking team. Defenders are already tracking back to what they believe will be the hind most foot, and poor defenders don’t react quick enough. Nonu’s try in the World Cup final off Sonny Bill Williams’ offload is a prime example. Ireland didn’t offload near enough in last year’s global competition; an offloading game would do wonders for them this year.

4. Find a place for CJ Stander.
With Peter O’Mahony set to miss out through injury, and Stander (now qualified) playing the way he is for Munster, it is a no-brainer. The South African plies his trade at 6 as well as 8, so would fit comfortably in. Séan O’Brien has been lining out at 7 for Leinster, so there’s no argument there either.

The only problem would be the absence of what some people would call an “out and out 7”, a player who scavenges for turnovers in the breakdown area. But these two players do enough of that as is.

5. Lose Dave Kearney and Simon Zebo.
We saw in the World Cup that Dave Kearney isn’t a world class player. He defended extremely poorly in the quarter final and, in my eyes, was at fault for two tries. He has been in and out of the Leinster starting fifteen of late and should not be in the match day squad for the Six Nations.

Zebo, although starting regularly for Munster, no longer offers much in attack. He defends well and is competitive in the air, but offers very little outside of his spin move (which he loves to show off numerous times a game).

6. Henshaw at 15.
Robbie Henshaw started at 15 against Munster in Thomond Park earlier in the season and played brilliantly, setting up Bundee Aki’s try in the corner in the final few minutes. He is comfortable at 15 and has plenty of game time racked up there.

Rob Kearney is a solid player, but doesn’t spark scoring opportunities very often from behind. He often takes contact instead of looking for space and is not an offloading player (which may suit Schmidt). Management could do worse than giving Henshaw some time there, especially if they are building towards the next World Cup.

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