Next in our set of previews ahead of the 2017 Six Nations, we examine the prospects of Joe Schmidt’s Ireland.
A World Cup quarter-final exit to Argentina was compounded by a dismal Six Nations last season, with Ireland finishing in third position. They were five points off eventual winners England after a sloppy opening saw them playing catch-up in a title race they could never win.
Ireland still showed what a dangerous side they are though in 2016 with their power game set to come to the fore again this year, with highlights being a first-ever win in South Africa and that remarkable triumph over New Zealand in Chicago.
It won’t be easy though to wrestle back the silverware as they have away trips to Scotland, Italy and Wales, which will determine if they are going to be genuine contenders heading into their tournament finale against England at the Aviva Stadium. A nail-biting finish could be looming.
Last year: Looking for their third successive Six Nations title, Ireland were kicking themselves after letting a 13-0 cushion go to waste against Wales in their opener. They ended up drawing 16-16 before going to Paris where they lost 10-9 and to make matters worse, injuries to Sean O’Brien and Dave Kearney compounded a result that looked to have ended their hopes of getting their hands on the silverware again.
After a weekend’s break, Ireland returned to action against England at Twickenham and despite taking a 10-6 lead they would go on to lose 21-10 with missed chances ultimately costing them a victory. That left them with just one point from the six available after three games.
Next for Schmidt’s side was a morale-boosting 58-15 victory at home to Italy, which saw them cross the whitewash nine times, and that set them up for a final clash with Scotland in Dublin that they ran out 35-25 winners, ending what was a disappointing campaign on a positive note.
This year: There’s plenty of depth in the pack for Ireland at the moment, even with Sean Cronin and Peter O’Mahony being ruled out. That’s what arguably sets them apart from their rivals as they just seem to have the edge in quality, with players such as Cian Healy, Finlay Bealham, Josh van der Flier and Tommy O’Donnell impressive options to have on the bench.
Even in behind they have superb back-ups so if injury strikes this year they should be well equipped to continue the challenge. Youngsters are maturing at a rapid rate, which all bodes well for Ireland in 2017.
Starting at Murrayfield won’t be easy though, especially against a side buzzing off Glasgow’s exploits. Escaping that one with any kind of win would be the springboard for a title push as they then travel to Italy before hosting France. Winning those two would create momentum going to Wales, who have question marks surrounding them, before the big one in Dublin against England, which may have a lot riding on it.
Key players: He’s been a rock for Munster for a good while now as CJ Stander continues to carry their charge from number eight. He will no doubt move to six again for Ireland this year but if he gets over the advantage line that makes life a great deal easier for Conor Murray, who will need to remain calm despite the recent pressure he’s been under at the base.
If teams are successful in rattling him then Ireland will struggle to execute their gameplan, with immediate half-back partner Paddy Jackson of course another key cog in unlocking opposition defences.
Players to watch: Most of the talk for Lions loosehead has centred around Mako Vunipola but Jack McGrath has consistently been of a superb standard over recent years. A solid scrummager and carrier the prop will be pivotal to Ireland’s hopes as he lays the groundwork for Healy to come on and cause havoc in the loose.
We’d also advise keeping an eye on one of those youngsters maturing at a rate and that is Robbie Henshaw. Like McGrath he could well be a starter in Auckland for that first Test and a solid Six Nations would surely secure that 12 spot.
Prospects: Surely up there as a main contender for the title after a disappointing Six Nations campaign last year. They have the personnel to challenge for glory and it’s likely that England will be their main rival, with their Round 5 showdown in Dublin possibly a Championship decider if things go to script.
With Munster, Leinster, Ulster and Connacht in impressive form of late, things are looking up for Schmidt’s outfit, with players such as Henshaw, Stander, Iain Henderson and Simon Zebo in excellent fettle ahead of this pivotal tournament in terms of British and Irish Lions selection. A strong campaign from the Irish should see many force their way into Warren Gatland’s touring squad.
Saturday, February 4 v Scotland (Murrayfield)
Saturday, February 11 v Italy (Stadio Olimpico)
Saturday, February 25 v France (Aviva Stadium)
Friday, March 10 v Wales (Principality Stadium)
Saturday, March 18 v England (Aviva Stadium)