Preview: Six Nations - Ireland
SPOTLIGHT ON TEAMS: Ireland had a disappointing Six Nations last year by their lofty standards. They inflicted the only defeat of Eddie Jones’ England tenure on the final day of the championship, to rescue what had been a poor campaign.
Autumn has seen the Irish back on track, a record 38-3 win over South Africa was followed by victories over Fiji and Argentina. They will also take encouragement from the performances of their provinces in Europe, with both Leinster and Munster securing home quarter-finals in the Champions Cup, while Connacht did the same in the Challenge Cup.
They also go into the Six Nations with a relatively low injury count, however, Sean O’Brien and Garry Ringrose’s absence from the early rounds are a big loss.
The halfbacks – Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton form one of the world’s best halfback partnerships. Murray’s accurate box kicking game gives his chasers maximum opportunity to compete. The Munster scrum half’s sniping runs mean defences have to be alert too, which eases the focus on Sexton somewhat.
The lineout – The evergreen Rory Best’s throwing consistency means Ireland can set up one of their most potent attacking weapons – the rolling maul. Peter O’Mahoney’s selection in the back row gives Ireland three viable lineout options to choose from too. Devin Toner, at a lofty 6’10”, is also adept at poaching opposition ball.
With Jared Payne’s extended absence and Garry Ringrose out for at least the first two matches, who will partner Robbie Henshaw in the centre? Henshaw’s former Connacht teammate Bundee Aki is inexperienced at international level, as is the alternative option, Chris Farrell. Both made their debut’s in the Autumn and did no wrong, but teams may target Ireland in this area. New Zealand-born Aki’s is likely to get the nod.
Jonathan Sexton: If Jonny Sexton plays well, Ireland plays well. The Irish system of centrally contracted players has meant his game-time is carefully managed, allowing him to sit out Leinster recent Champions Cup pool game against Montpellier. The extra week’s rest means he should be fresh and firing for the Six Nations. He’s Ireland second-highest Six Nations points scorer with 313, only Ronan O’Gara is ahead of him.
CJ Stander: A key ball carrier for Munster and Ireland, he nearly always makes the gainline – Ireland can be over-reliant on him to do so, Sean O’Brien’s absence will only increase that. The South African-born back row gets his fair share of tries too, he scored three in the Six Nations last season. Stander’s performances for Ireland have meant Jamie Heaslip’s lengthy injury layoff hasn’t left a big hole.
Tadgh Furlong: Flourished on the British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand, he has become a key cog in a strong Irish scrum. Comfortable in the loose too, with excellent ball-handling skills. Recently signed a new central contract with the IRFU, which will take him up to June 2021.
Jordan Larmour – Some fine performances for Leinster over the Christmas period, including a wonderful solo try against Munster at Thomond Park, led to a clamour for his inclusion into Ireland’s 36-man squad. He’s not there to make up the numbers either, expect appearances from the bench as his versatility allows him to cover the back three and at centre. Comfortable stepping off both feet, the 20-year-old will cause headaches for defences if a game opens up. The fact Joe Schmidt selected him ahead of the supremely talented Simon Zebo shows just how good he is.
Joey Carbery – He got a run at flyhalf for Ireland during the Autumn, starting against Fiji, but a broken wrist in that match meant an extended absence. He returned from the bench for Leinster away at Montpellier and is a player that Joe Schmidt rates and trusts. A long-term replacement for Jonny Sexton, but lacks game time in the flyhalf position because he’s often selected at full-back for his province. Fitness may see Ian Keatley preferred in the matchday squad against France, but expect the 22-year-old to feature after that.
Jack Conan – The Leinster academy keeps producing fine back rowers, Dan Leavy is another who has made big strides. Conan has yet to make a Six Nations appearance for Ireland, but played all three matches on last summer’s tour, scoring three tries, while he was also a try scorer against Fiji in the autumn.
Jacob Stockdale – The winger made his Ireland debut in the Autumn, scoring on his debut against South Africa and twice against Argentina in his second appearance. His form for Ulster has seen him score eight tries in 13 matches, including a neat finish against La Rochelle at Ravenhill.
All coaches will say winning your first game is crucial. Ireland’s opener is an unknown entity, France under Jacques Brunel are sure to provide a stiffer resolve compared to what was seen in 2017, when the French only won three matches. Ireland lost 10-9 the last time they were in Paris, but success there and a trio of home games follow – against Italy, Wales and Scotland.
Ireland came unstuck in the away matches against Scotland and Wales last season and both are likely to be better sides in 2018, with Warren Gatland’s return from Lions duty and the progress being made under Gregor Townsend. Home form does carry a lot of weight in the Six Nations and should Ireland be able to navigate past that Celtic challenge, a Grand Slam decider against England at Twickenham on Saint Patrick’s Day would be on the horizon. Winning at Twickenham is a difficult task, Ireland’s label as second favourites seems appropriate.
Joe Schmidt won the Six Nations in his first two years in charge of Ireland, but a third-placed and second-placed finish have followed. Another title would move Ireland level with Scotland on 14 championships.