Six Nations preview: Ireland

Date published: January 29 2013

With the Six Nations set for kick-off this weekend, Planet Rugby takes a look at each team's chances in 2013. Next up, Ireland!

With the Six Nations set for kick-off this weekend, Planet Rugby takes a look at each team's chances in 2013. Next up, Ireland!

With their title prospects de-railed early on last season at home to Wales, Ireland will begin their campaign by visiting Cardiff looking for revenge and eyeing up another Six Nations crown.

Last year: A well-earned draw in Paris – where their match with Les Bleus went ahead at the second time of asking following a frozen pitch – and a heavy defeat at Twickenham proved to ultimately be Ireland's undoing, along with the defeat to Wales in the opening encounter.

No side scored more points or made more line breaks than Ireland in the 2012 championship though, with Tommy Bowe finishing as the tournament's top try scorer with five. The Ulsterman will miss this year's championship due to a knee injury.

Where Ireland struggled was in the set-piece – the memory of their splintered scrum against England at Twickenham has not quite been forgotten – with forwards coach Gert Smal this time around unable to select either Stephen Ferris or Paul O'Connell.

Moving on from the Six Nations, Ireland were whitewashed by New Zealand in June – including the 60-0 defeat in Hamilton – before a narrow defeat against South Africa and a big win over Argentina in November lifted spirits ahead of the new year.

This year: A third Heineken Cup in four years for Leinster has seen Irish rugby's stock rise further since last year's tournament, with Ulster and Munster set to compete in the quarter-finals of this year's European showpiece.

Bowe's injury is far from a disaster due to the excellent form out wide of young duo Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy – with both players more than able to accommodate for Bowe's absence.

The return of Leinster absentees Sean O'Brien, Brian O'Driscoll and Rob Kearney will have boosted coach Declan Kidney's spirits no end in recent weeks, whilst upfront Cian Healy has been in excellent form for the European champions.

Given that Ireland will host both France and England in Dublin, a win away at the Millennium Stadium in Round One would make them candidates to the lift the title this season if they can back it up with the key victories at home.

Key players: Besides at prop and in the second row, Ireland have great depth throughout their squad. A crop of the 2009 Grand Slam winning side remain but all eyes will be on fly-half Jonathan Sexton.

Set to join Racing Métro on a big-money transfer at the end of the season, the Leinster fly-half has proved his value over the last 12 months and will be integral to any Irish success in 2013.

Elsewhere, the aforementioned Healy is crucial both to Ireland's scrum but also around the park, where his power and pace turn him into an extra back row. One man who could be selected in that area is Chris Henry, whose performances in the Heineken Cup indicate the big stage is where he belongs.

The return of Brian O'Driscoll provides essential leadership in midfield, whilst the man who has taken the captain's armband from O'Driscoll,Jamie Heaslip, will face a step up from when he lead the side in November. As Ireland look forward to the next generation, much will be made of their success under Heaslip's captaincy over the next two months.

Prospects: Win against Wales in Cardiff and the hype around Ireland will swell. Concerns remain over their ability to scrummage with the best but an effective line-out and Sexton's ability with boot and hand give Ireland an edge. A top three finish feels within their grasp, but they could go all the way.

2 February: v Wales – Away
10 February: v England – Home
24 February: v Scotland – Away
9 March: v France – Home
16 March: v Italy – Away