The Build up to the 6 Nations

Our very own Graham Wilson casts his opinion on the Irish chances in the 6 nations.

6Nations Ireland Rugby

It's been an unfortunate year for Ireland. Despite a sensational win over Australia at the World Cup they had the misfortune to be pitted against an excellent Wales side in the quarter finals. The Irish will be looking for silverware in the coming campaign but will be made for fight for it by strong French and Welsh sides. Declan Kidney has picked an old, experienced side making a change from the younger teams that many coaches have gone for. In my opinion he's making a mistake here as can we seriously be expecting players like Paul O'Connell, Rory Best and Gordon D'Arcy to still be competing for starting shirts come 2015?

Although there are a lot of familiar names on the squad list there is one gaping omission. Brian O'Driscoll's absence will be deeply felt by the team and due to a shoulder injury he'll be watching Ireland play from the stands this championship. Although Kidney has some good options for the centre spot in Paddy Wallace, Andrew Trimble and Fergus McFadden, none of them quite have the flair which makes O'Driscoll the player he is. Trimble demonstrated his potential  when he came on against Wales in the World Cup finals and made several strong runs. In the half backs, Ireland have a solid pairing with Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray. Sexton really earned his stripes in New Zealand, proving himself superior to Ronan O'Gara at goal kicking. O'Gara, although he has been prolific for Ireland, has lost his spark and in my view, anything he can do, Sexton can do better. My guess is that with Declan Kidney looking towards 2015 Conor Murray will be given the no.9 jersey ahead of  Eoin Reddan, especially after the positive World Cup the young Munsterman had. In the back three, Ireland will opt for experience. Keith Earls, Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney will feature in most of the games and they will each get at least three or four starts. Rob Kearney has established a monopoly on the full back position as Geordan Murphy has failed to get into the squad and Luke Fitzgerald has been dropped to the Wolfhounds. Keith Earls, who is not always on form, may find himself challenged by Fergus McFadden and Andrew Trimble, who are equally as effective on the wing as they are at centre. Certainly McFadden has the ability to inject pace into an Ireland back three that can be a bit unadventurous at times.

Up front, it's a different story. Declan Kidney will be spoilt for choice when he picks his starting eight for the opening game against Wales on Saturday. In the tight five Ireland will have a strong and experienced unit who, according to Jonathan Davies, are capable of being one of the best in the world when they're playing on form. I think we might see, quite rightly, Cian Healy, Sean Cronin and Tom Court starting against Wales this weekend. Both Healy and Court are strong scrummagers and extremely powerful ball carriers, having proved this both at domestic and international level. Cronin stands a high chance of bagging the hooker's jersey over Rory Best as he's recently proven himself better with the ball in hand and as he's younger, he'll be in contention to be starting hooker for 2015. In the second row Paul O'Connell, who picks up the captaincy, and Donncha O'Callaghan are the obvious choices. Both demonstrated they are world-class players and have earned caps for the Lions to boot. Paul O'Connell is a natural leader and plays his skin off every match while O'Callaghan is a dynamic second row with a good running game.

Kidney shouldn't have any problems when it comes to selecting his back row. Ireland have the most powerful back row in European rugby and they would be fully capable of challenging New Zealand in that department as well. Jamie Heaslip, Sean O'Brien and Stephen Ferris are fixtures in the Ireland squad and manage to be both dynamic in the field and consistently excellent when it comes to scrum and line-out time. Sean O'Brien in particular is a powerhouse at flanker and sums up the modern back row to a tee. Both explosive and agile you can feel his impact at almost every break-down and he still has energy to run great lines off 9 and 10. Although he's only gained 15 caps, he is already an institution in the Ireland side and will prove to be a very exciting player to watch this championship. Heaslip is an equally dominant player and with an unbelievable work rate he should still be a force to be reckoned with. Shane Jennings, another exceptional back row, will probably be involved in a messy scrap with Stephen Ferris for the no.7 shirt but British Lion Ferris should claim it for his own. It's unfortunate for Jennings that he has such stiff competition for a place, as if he was eligible for any of the other home nations then he would be in their starting lineup.

My prediction for Ireland's Six Nations campaign is that they will be involved in a mid-table battle with England for 3rd place. Wales and France will be top dogs this tournament and I think Ireland lack the spark that those two teams have. Scotland will give Ireland a lot of trouble and if they want to get third place then they will be made to fight for it. There will be no easy wins for them this tournament and with England proving to be a largely unknown entity who knows what will happen. This is an Ireland squad with a point to prove, but the same could be said of Scotland, England and Wales, who all suffered world cup disappointment. I have a feeling that an Ireland team who are used to success, both at club level and internationally, could find that their golden age has finally come to an end and in five weeks time we might see Ireland and Italy scrapping it out for 5th and 6th place.

Graham Wilson's Ireland XV.

1. Cian Healy
2. Sean Cronin
3. Tom Court
4. Paul O'Connell
5. Donncha O'Callaghan
6. Sean O'Brien
7. Stephen Ferris
8. Jamie Heaslip
9. Conor Murray
10. Johnny Sexton
11. Keith Earls
12. Gordon D'Arcy
13. Fergus McFadden
14. Tommy Bowe
15. Rob Kearney