Six Nations: Ireland have what it takes to complete another Grand Slam
The squads for the 2019 Six Nations have been announced and Matthew Crist believes hot-favourites Ireland are good for another undefeated tournament...
"Ireland lost just one game in 2018 in a year which saw them claim the Six Nations championship as well as the Grand Slam and who would bet against them doing the same this time around?"
No fear for the Irish
This could well be a pivotal year for Irish Rugby; they head to Japan in the summer as one of the fancied teams to lift the World Cup but before that have a little matter of the Six Nations, another title they are more than capable of claiming.
Joe Schmidt has named uncapped Connacht trio Caolin Blade, Jack Carty and Tom Farrell in his 38-man squad for this year's competition while Ulster lock Iain Henderson is included having made a speedy recovery from a thumb injury along with Flanker Sean O'Brien who also returns.
However, they will be without Munster lock Tadhg Beirne for the first two rounds after he suffered knee ligament damage in his side's 9-7 victory over the Exeter Chiefs in the Champions Cup.
Ireland lost just one game in 2018 in a year which saw them claim the Six Nations championship as well as the Grand Slam and who would bet against them doing the same this time around at [1.88] to win the tournament? Indeed, such has been their excellence, that the better bet looks like a Grand Slam win for Schmidt's side at [3.3].
An impressive 12 months was capped by a resounding 16-9 victory over the All Blacks in Dublin last October, the first time they have beaten New Zealand on home soil, a result which sent shockwaves around the rugby world and one which won't have gone unnoticed by their perennial rivals closer to home.
Ireland start their Six Nations campaign at home to England on February 2, the first of just two home games in the tournament with France being the only other visitors to Dublin with away trips to Italy, Scotland and Wales to look forward to.
And such is the confidence among Schmidt's men few opponents will fill these boys in green with fear as they set about defending their title.
England have much to prove
After a pretty dismal 2018 England will be hoping for a change of fortunes this year with the pressure very much on Head Coach Eddie Jones. They barely put up a fight when it came to the defence of their Six Nations title 12 months ago, ultimately finishing fifth in what heralded a disappointing year on the pitch.
A poor beginning to the year was followed-up by defeat in the first two tests in South Africa during the summer, eventually winning the third and final match in a 2-1 series defeat, a victory which, to be honest, did little to improve confidence or instil fear into their opponents.
The Autumn Internationals did provide a little more encouragement, however, with a narrow 12-11 victory over the Springboks and a 37-18 victory over Australia coming either side of a heartbreaking defeat to the All Blacks in a game which saw them cough up a 15 point lead.
Eddie Jones has named four uncapped players in the shape of Gloucester wing Ollie Thorley, Saracens back-row Ben Earl while Dylan Hartley misses out with Owen Farrell named as captain for an England team that can be backed at [5.0] for the Six Nations title.
Injury woes for Wales
Wales enjoyed a solid 2018 including wins over Australia and South Africa in the Autumn Internationals and a pretty impressive Six Nations campaign which saw them win all their home games with defeats in Ireland and England being their only losses of the year.
Coach Warren Gatland, who is set to hand over the Welsh reins to Wayne Pivac after this year's Rugby World Cup, has named a 39-man squad with Ospreys talisman Alun Wyn Jones his skipper.
In-form Wasps flanker Thomas Young has also secured a spot in Warren Gatland's final Six Nations Championship squad and joins a back-row depleted by injuries to Blues flanker Ellis Jenkins, James Davies, Aaron Shingler and Taulupe Faletau, though Wales are still priced at [6.0] on the Exchange for the Six Nations.
French not fancied
Les Bleus endured something of a difficult year in 2018 with the pick of their Six Nations results being the defeat of England in Paris. But after being whitewashed 3-0 in their tour of New Zealand in June their only other victory of the year came against Argentina having been beaten by South Africa in the autumn along with a surprise defeat to Fiji.
France have included five uncapped players in their 31-man Six Nations squad. Demba Bamba and Romain Ntamack, two members of France's winning Under-20 World Cup squad, are joined by Dorian Aldegheri and Gregory Alldriit and full-back Thomas Ramos.
South African-born Paul Willemse is also named after he obtained French nationality while Guilhem Guirado has been named as captain with Morgan Parra, who was sidelined for France's three November Tests, returning after a wrist injury to join a side who are now a whopping [17.0] for the Six Nations title.
Meanwhile, Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend believes they can defy their price of [16.0] and win the title despite a lengthy injury list which has led to him to include uncapped hookers Jake Kerr of Leicester, Edinburgh's Dave Cherry and Glasgow's Grant Stewart.
Rookie centres Chris Dean and Sam Johnson, Newcastle flanker Gary Graham and Glasgow prop D'Arcy Rae are also included as Scotland look to build on a wins last year over England and France.
A defeat of Argentina at the back end of 2018 is bound to have increased confidence among the Scots as they open their campaign with home matches against Italy and Ireland with the head coach Townsend telling BBC Sport: "That is the only reason we take part in it, to win the game that is ahead of us and win the trophy"