By Bernard Jackman
I am really excited about the start of the RBS 6 Nations this weekend. For a start, FCG Grenoble have no match in the TOP 14 and that means I will get to watch the three matches live from our sitting room. But the main reason is that I believe Ireland will get the Joe Schmidt era started with a bang and win the title.
Schmidt is the best attack coach in the world. Unusually for a coach who is so technically and tactically shrewd, he is also very good at man management. That is vital when you are dealing with players who are used to being the star players in their teams.
Ireland’s problem over recent years has not been about a lack of talent, fitness or financial resources. It has been their inability to bring the form and success from the provincial game into international rugby on a consistent basis.
Joe’s ability to create a culture of high performance will help improve consistency.
Players will be selected on form (on the pitch and training ground) and the incredible detail that he is famous for means Ireland will go into matches in no doubt about what is expected of them. That gives players confidence.
The New Zealand performance, Heineken Cup form, and the recent signings by the IRFU should all work in our favour (in fact, I believe that the French Clubs now feel that the Irish market is a waste of time as they now think that Irish players generally do not leave. That will save the IRFU money in the long term).
I also expect a more attacking and entertaining tournament in 2014.
With just 37 tries in 25 matches, the 2013 tournament produced the fewest tries in the history of the championship. To give a contrast, there were 56 in 2009, 71 in 2005 and 75 in 2001.
Attack-minded coaches at the helm
When you look at the respective coaches involved, Scott Johnson, Jacques Brunel and Joe Schmidt are out-and-out attack minded in their approach. And while Warren Gatland prefers power to finesse, he also gets his teams to play ball-in-hand rugby.
England are also changing. Stuart Lancaster has traditionally been a set-piece and percentages man, but the inclusion of Danny Care, Luther Burnell, Jonny May and Jack Nowell signifies that he is willing to play a more expansive game, with one eye on the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Given their history, it is surprising that the team that will probably take the most pragmatic approach to this tournament is France. Phillipe Saint-Andre is definitely a disciple of the “low risk is best” philosophy.
Looking at how the tournament sets up, Ireland have the luxury of two home matches to start and even though they have improved, Scotland are an ideal opponent first up.
Over the five matches, Schmidt will look to create an environment where players can slot in and out. There will be plenty of opportunity with those outside the panel, the likes of Simon Zebo, getting ‘work ons’ to ensure they can do all the little things that matter to Joe and his coaches when the time comes.
Looking at this selection, there are no major surprises.
Chris Henry was ahead of Tommy O’Donnell in November and has been playing well for Ulster. O’Donnell is a quality player and is a more powerful athlete than Henry, and with Sean O’Brien's injury he is most like-for-like replacement.
He is a brilliant bench option as he has experience in all three back row positions but mainly because he has real X-factor. O’Donnell edged a late run from Jordi Murphy for the back row bench spot and I think that while Jordi has been excellent recently, the Heineken Cup match against Castres away for Leinster showed that physically, he has still some developing to do. He has huge potential.
Marshall and D'Arcy will both start at 12
I expect Godon D’Arcy and Luke Marshall to share the 12 jersey over the tournament and I think it is wise to give Marshall the opportunity to play in top-class internationals. He made a simple defensive error which resulted in an Australia try in November and was dropped for the All Blacks game, but he gives us that powerful ball carrying target man.
Wales (Jamie Roberts), France (Matthieu Bastardeaud) and Scotland (Duncan Taylor) have similar types.
Andrew Trimble probably would not have started had Luke Fitzgerald been fit but he is a player with proven international experience and is capable of a big performance.
Tactically, I expect Ireland to really go after Scotland, playing fast and aggressive rugby right on the gain line.
We have physically strong half-backs in Conor Murray and Sexton who are threats and like to take the ball to the line. Sexton was outstanding for Racing Metro against Toulouse in the Top 14 last weekend and he has often spoken about how much he enjoys implementing Joe’s game plan.
In O’Brien’s absence I expect to see Peter O’Mahony and Jamie Heaslip carry more with Henry acting as more of a ball winner/ball keeper.
'Powerplays' - set strike plays, normally from a scrum or lineout, are a big part of Schmidt’s approach and I expect to see Ireland deploy some of those designed to exploit particular Scottish defensive weaknesses. Leinster had a really high success rate of converting 'powerplays' into tries and if Ireland can recreate that, we will be in business.
A feature of Ireland's play in November that has not been widely commented on was how effective our driving maul was. It is something that the new forwards coach John Plumtree was well known for and I expect us to use that tool to work the Scottish pack over on Sunday afternoon.
Ireland's tactics - the 'chop and barge'
In defending, Ireland introduced a 'Chop and Barge' tactic against the All Blacks, sending the primary tackler in low with the second man looking to barge through the ruck and past the ball.
If that second player wins the space the next defender follows him in and Ireland counter ruck. If the ‘barge’ is ineffective, Ireland just fan out and wait for the next collision.
Ireland will also use the choke tackle in certain areas while Rory Best, Cian Healy, Henry, and Brian O’Driscoll are quality ‘Jackalers’ and we will also see the familiar ‘chop and jackal’ attempt to steal the ball on the deck as well.
From the Scottish side, the coach Johnson began as a skills coach and he has made them better at converting possession into points than they were under Andy Robinson. With a back three of Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland and Sean Lamont they are not short on firepower out wide.
But Ireland are stronger in some key areas. Up front, I fancy us to win the set piece battle while Scotland are also weak at out-half, where they start Duncan Weir, and Ireland must put plenty of pressure on him.
All told, I think that this is a match that Ireland are capable of winning by a ten-point or more margin, with even greater things to come over the next few weeks.
Do you have a question for Bernard Jackman? Tweet #AskJackman and he will answer a selection in next week's column.
LIVE RBS 6 NATIONS:
Live television coverage of the opening weekend of the RBS Six Nations from 14:00 on Saturday 1 and Sunday 2 February on RTÉ Two and RTE.ie (Ireland only). Live radio coverage on Saturday Sport (14:00) and Sunday Sport (14:00) on RTÉ Radio 1 and RTÉ.ie (Worldwide).