Stephen Ferris won the Grand Slam with Ireland in 2009. He now commentates on Irish games for Premier Sports
This Ireland team should not be second or third favourites going into this Six Nations. In years gone by, Ireland seemed to peak the year before a Rugby World Cup – peaked too soon in many people’s eyes – but they have also won a lot of silverware in that year. They are going to try to win this year’s Six Nations, make no mistake, and then they will try to ride that momentum going into the next 12 months. They are in the top three teams in the tournament and have as good a chance as anybody of winning it. It’s going to be tough, it’s always tough. They have an opening home game against Wales, I’ve been there and experienced it, it could be Italy but it doesn’t matter who that first game up is against, it will be really difficult. Wales are struggling for form and have had their critics but it will still be a pretty big scalp for Ireland. By that I mean putting 15-20 points on a side that won the Six Nations last year.
I think it will come down to fine margins this year. There are four teams that could win it and there will be controversial decisions, there will be yellow cards, there might be the odd red card so it will be about controlling as many of those instances in big games as they can.
I think Ireland have been very good at that especially over the autumn internationals when they beat the All Blacks. Is that down to personnel or is it down to coaching? I am not 100% sure just yet and I suppose the next 12-18 months with the World Cup cycle coming around will probably tell us a lot more about this coaching set-up and group of players but at the moment they are in a really good position and I fancy them to win the tournament this year.
I think what I like so much about them is the tempo to their game. It took a while for them to get into their stride and adapt to what Andy Farrell wanted them to do. I think Jamison Gibson-Park coming in at No.9 is definitely speeding the whole thing up. People say one player can’t make a difference but I tell you what when you are on front-foot ball and you have someone like Johnny Sexton pulling the strings you want to get that ball to him as quickly as possible and Jamison Gibson-Park is very good at doing that.
I’m 36, the same age as Johnny and I played through the age groups with him. I’m not sure how he keeps going. He’s been well managed over the last year or two. He hasn’t been wheeled out to play in the smaller games and that has been important. You’ve got to admire him because his level of performance rarely drops and the bigger the game, the better for him.
Who else do I like? I could pick a dozen Ireland players but being a former back row player I just love watching the way Caelen Doris goes about his business. He isn’t this muscle-bound 150kg forward – a bit like Pierre Spies back in the day – he doesn’t have that but he uses his footballing ability and the way he reads the game, the angles of running, the way he attacks space the way he did against when he scored his try against New Zealand. He is the complete opposite of CJ Stander. CJ was very effective for Ireland but Caelan has so much more to his game and can play in so many different ways with ball in hand. He doesn’t go around smashing people, he just makes the right decisions. If you are going to watch out for anybody in this Six Nations then it’s Caelen Doris, provided he can stay injury free because we know he has had his head knocks in the past.
If Ireland are to win it then France away is the big one. Les Bleus have some amazing athletes and they are favourites for the tournament but while they are building I don’t think they have the nous to be able to get it done on the big occasion. The way Ireland have been able to win championships in recent years will give them the mental edge.
As told to James Morgan