We preview each of the team’s prospects ahead of the upcoming Six Nations Championship. First up, it’s reigning champions Ireland.
Will it be back-to-back titles for the Irish or is Six Nations life after BOD going to have a delayed impact? Injuries to key personnel will be a worry for fans in what is looking like a difficult campaign ahead. We all know a fully fit Ireland are a match for any team but when players drop out, cracks begin to appear in terms of depth, which is likely to prove the difference between smiles and frowns.
Last Year: A first Six Nations title since 2009 was won in Brian O’Driscoll’s swansong tournament. Four wins from five saw their only a loss at Twickenham costing them a Grand Slam, with the championship sealed with a 22-20 win against France in Paris. O’Driscoll’s extended stay in the game was down to Joe Schmidt persuading him to play on and it paid off, as the trophy was in his hands one last time. They began with a comfortable 28-6 win over Scotland and then beat Wales 26-3 before that loss to England. Two closing victories saw them to the spoils though as Jonathan Sexton topped both the points (66) and try standings (level with Mike Brown on 4).
This year: It’s going to be tough to replicate last year’s title win particularly without BOD and the possibility of fly-half Sexton, Conor Murray, Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien not being fully fit. While home fixtures against France and England are circled as being must-win games, we believe the Irish are set to lose at least one of their five games, which will mean the difference between success and failure in 2015. Rob Kearney will need to be a rock at the back while the midfield continues to be an area of uncertainty as Robbie Henshaw and Darren Cave fight for the thirteen jersey and twelve also has doubts. Up against Wales in Round 4 could highlight that when Ireland take on two of Scott Williams, Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies. At least at that point they will have Sexton back in the side for what could well be a title decider.
Key Players: Leading by example is something second-row Paul O’Connell does every time he steps out on the field. His form in 2014 was arguably his best to date and with what could well be his final year in the green shirt, he will be wanting to go out with a bang in the Six Nations and World Cup. Classy wing Tommy Bowe is another consistent player with his wonderful running lines, and if he can find his scoring form, this Irish team will threaten all rivals in the coming months.
Players to watch: Back from injury for Leinster in recent weeks, Jamie Heaslip‘s return to rugby is significant for Ireland. Without Heaslip, the Irish miss direction and his carrying at the base, and if they can get Sean O’Brien back firing alongside Peter O’Mahony, they have a top class back-row. Keep an eye on the performances of Heaslip’s team-mate Ian Madigan in the early weeks as he looks to take his chance with both hands in the fly-half shirt. Meanwhile, whether Schmidt can overlook Cave at number thirteen is a big question. A recent hat-trick versus Leicester has no doubt helped his case.
Prospects: A favourable schedule start sees the Irish begin in Rome before they host France and England. That surely has to be viewed as an ideal beginning for coach Schmidt in 2015 but the absence of fly-half Sexton until Round 3 is a concern, not least with Paddy Jackson on the treatment table with a dislocated elbow. Murray, O’Brien and Healy’s fitness for international rugby is also a concern ahead of a first Six Nations since veteran O’Driscoll’s retirement and it’s for that reason we don’t see them reclaiming the title. There are just a few too many concerns regarding their line-up at the moment and late-championship trips to Wales and Scotland could prove their undoing. Second spot this time around.
Sat, 7 Feb v Italy (Stadio Olimpico)
Sat, 14 Feb v France (Aviva Stadium)
Sun, 1 Mar v England (Aviva Stadium)
Sat, 14 Mar v Wales (Millennium Stadium)
Sat, 21 Mar v Scotland (Murrayfield)