Six Nations/Pro 12 Rugby Preview

Yet again we have a weekend where the Irish national team and the provinces that are meant to feed into a shared centre stage, of course the highlight takes place at the Stade de France on Sunday as Ireland must go through their preparation to break their Parisian hoodoo.

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Of course the highlight takes place at the Stade de France on Sunday as Ireland must go through their preparation to break their Parisian hoodoo.

What’s unique about this occasion from a rugby writer’s viewpoint is that we already did our preview for the last match! So the question that needs to be answered now is…how have things changed for the two sides between now and then?

On the Irish side of things, there is no change to the squad, but at least the 22 have had a game under their belt in the meantime where they can try some formations and most crucially, get themselves some confidence. Things weren’t exactly plain sailing from start to finish against the Italians, especially in the first half, but they have to be happy with the result at very least.

Meanwhile some injuries force Phillipe Saint Andre to make some changes to his lineup though when you can add names like Morgan Parra and Clement Poitrenaud to your starting XV it’s not exactly a bad thing! We all know what the Clermont scrumhalf is capable of as he showed kicking ten goals in two outings at the Aviva Stadium in 2011.

Poitrenaud on the other hand could be an interesting call up. Left in the wilderness by Marc Lievremont he will definitely feel he has something to prove and there is no doubting he has the ability, if not perhaps the consistency shown at Test level by the man he replaces, the unfortunate Médard who’s season is over.

The French have also made a key change to their backrow, adding Julien Bonnaire who if anything adds to their set-piece, particularly at the lineout where the Scots caused them some problems.

Which leads to the all-important question…can Ireland do it? I definitely think they can, and seeing how Declan Kidney is lining up against them, it seems his aim is to keep the French score as low as possible for as long as possible and hope to attack from the bench in the second half.

It’s a risky policy, one that required the utmost in focus and discipline but listening to Paul O’Connell during the week this is what they have been working on so it’s really up to the boys to go out and show us they can do it.

What’s needed most of all is for more players to stand up and be counted. There were good outings last Saturday by Jonathan Sexton, Rob Kearney and Stephen Ferris in particular, but the Ulster flanker’s backrow partners need to find a way to work together and front up against the likes of Dusautoir and Harinordoquy.

Because presuming we avoid giving away silly penalties, to penetrate the French defence we are going to need as much front foot ball as we can get, and the breakdown, as so often is the case, is where the match can be won or lost.

Meanwhile, in the Pro12, there are only six rounds left before the top four playoff positions are decided, and the latest series kicks off with a bottom v top clash in Viadana as Aironi host Leinster.

Most notable name on Joe Schmidt’s teamsheet is that of the returning Luke Fitzgerald who assumes full-back duty as Nacewa stays at home for personal reasons. The Ireland & Lions star will no doubt be chomping at the bit to get his form back after being so desperately unlucky with injury before Christmas.

Elsewhere in the Leinster lineup Ian Madigan will be looking to continue his impressive form – if he can, he surely has a spot in the Heineken Cup quarterfinal matchday 23 to look forward to whatever about the recovery of Kiwi Mat Berquist.

Two other provinces are in action this evening…Ulster will look to capitalise on their victory over the Ospreys when they welcome Michael Bradley’s Edinburgh to Ravenhill. Bryan McLaughlin sticks with the halfback pairing of Marshall and Pienaar though a hand injury to Nevin Spence means the back line gets shifted around a bit as Adam D’Arcy goes to fullback and Terblanche lines up on the wing.

Connacht climbed to 10th on the table with their victory last Friday and travel to the Scarlets on the back of more positive news, for their long-term anyway as they announced the signing of the experienced Dan Parks. Miah Nikora wears 10 tonight to show what he can do and Peter Borlase makes his first appearance for the Westerners after moving from Munster.

Speaking of Munster, they face a trip to Rodney Parade that can always be tricky, though the Dragons will count themselves lucky to have gotten away from Viadana with a win last Sunday. Tony McGahan will no doubt rue not being able to name Donnacha Ryan & Peter O’Mahony in his side and must also do without Simon Zebo. However they named new signing Save Tokula to the squad and he could well start in the centre especially as Danny Barnes must also sit this one out.

And so we come to prediction time. Sadly, though I’m expecting Paul O’Connell to lead his troops to a positive showing in Paris, I can’t see it lasting for the full eighty minutes and though it should be close, I’m expecting the Wales v France match on St Patrick’s Day to be a Grand Slam decider and thus the home side will likely prevail.

In the Pro12, I’m tipping wins, albeit without try bonuses, for all Irish provinces but Connacht – the Scarlets should prove too strong for them on home soil, and the bonus point may also elude Eric Elwood’s men. Elsewhere I reckon the Ospreys will prove too strong for Glasgow at home while Treviso may upset the visiting Blues.

That’s it for me for another week. Hopefully I’m wrong about Paris! I’ll be back next week when it’s the Scots making their first appearance at the Aviva Stadium. Enjoy your rugby this weekend wherever you are! JLP

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