|Venue: Principality Stadium, Cardiff Date: Saturday, 4 February Kick-off: 14:15 GMT|
|Coverage: Live on BBC One, BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio Cymru, BBC Radio Ulster, Radio 5 Sports Extra, the BBC Sport website & app; live text commentary on BBC Sport website & app|
Ahead of Ireland’s Six Nations opener against Wales, 2009 Grand Slam winner Tommy Bowe discusses the impact Warren Gatland’s return will have had on Andy Farrell and picks out Ireland players to look out for in this year’s championship.
We’ve reached what I’m calling ‘TFI February – thanks for it’s February’. January was particularly bleak this year, but one thing that got me through it was watching The White Lotus with my wife.
It may sound strange, but the journey of the main character – played by Jennifer Coolidge – got me thinking of Ireland coach Andy Farrell’s current situation.
I won’t go into specific plot details but in the show, life is good for Coolidge’s character. Things are finally going her way until she spots a picture of someone she knows very well. Suddenly her heart sinks, and the drama starts.
It got me thinking about how Farrell must have been feeling going into a new Six Nations campaign. Ireland are the number one team in the world, Grand Slam favourites, but then he hears the news ‘Warren Gatland is back’.
I’ve no doubt his heart skipped a beat. Gats, a man he knows so well, is back to spoil the party! And that photo of them both celebrating with the British & Irish Lions will have been quickly removed from the wall.
But look, that’s not to say Farrell’s world is about to come crashing down around him. Far from it, in fact, for this is Farrell’s best opportunity to win the Six Nations as Ireland boss.
France won the Grand Slam last year, but Ireland established themselves as the best team in the world in 2022. They beat the All Blacks in a Test series in New Zealand and while they weren’t always convincing during the autumn internationals, Farrell’s side did enough to see off the other two southern hemisphere giants – South Africa and Australia – in Dublin.
On top of that, Leinster – who have 20 players in the Six Nations squad – have been flying in Europe, while unlike new England head coach Steve Borthwick, Farrell hasn’t been drawing up his championship masterplan around a growing injury list – although Tadhg Furlong and Robbie Henshaw are missing.
But Cardiff hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for Ireland in recent years. If you discount World Cup warm-ups they haven’t won there since 2013, and with Gatland back in the hotseat, Saturday is going to be a huge challenge.
Wales endured a disappointing 2022 under Wayne Pivac, finishing fifth in the Six Nations before losing three of their four autumn Tests, including that shock home defeat by Georgia, but I fully expect them to improve under Gatland.
And my old Lions coach would love nothing more than to derail Irish momentum in Cardiff on Saturday.
Given that he ended his first spell in charge on such a high, winning a third Grand Slam with Wales, it is fascinating that Gatland decided to go back.
Coaches going back for a second spell can often end in tears, but I have no doubt that Gatland will galvanise his squad in time for them to produce a big performance against the world’s number one side in what is sure to be a cracking atmosphere at Principality Stadium.
Gatland has returned during a difficult time for Welsh rugby with the controversy surrounding the Welsh Rugby Union, but he is an extremely savvy operator and will know exactly how to keep his team’s focus on on-pitch matters – naming his team for Saturday’s match a couple of days early was a part of that.
Gibson-Park, Beirne and Van der Flier ones to watch
Having Johnny Sexton fit for the Six Nations is hugely important for Ireland, and while there is always a lot of talk about how vital he is to this Ireland team, there are a few other players I’m excited to watch in the coming weeks.
Jamison Gibson-Park, for example. Without him at nine, Ireland simply can’t play with the style and tempo that has driven their rise to the top of the world rankings.
The Leinster scrum-half has been a key cog in the Ireland attacking machine since his debut in 2020 and we saw how he relishes the biggest stage in his player-of-the-match display against England last year.
It has also been wonderful to see Tadhg Beirne develop into a world-class lock. The Munster man was ever-present last year and, provided he avoids injury, will be a pivotal part of Farrell’s plan for 2023.
It would also be remiss of me not to mention Josh van der Flier. The Leinster back row is flying at the moment after winning the World Rugby Player of the Year and is another Farrell mainstay who can help deliver a first Six Nations title since 2018.
Regardless of the result on Saturday, my hope is that the likes of Ireland and France can help reignite the excitement around rugby that the game badly needs.
On the pitch, red cards and lengthy TMO reviews are sucking the life out of matches, and I hope that come Monday we are reviewing an opening round that was dominated by great scores and free-flowing rugby and not refereeing decisions.
With rugby the subject of a behind-the-scenes documentary by a certain streaming giant, now is the time for northern hemisphere teams to put on a spectacular show and kick off this World Cup year in style.