Planet Rugby

Six Nations Preview: Ireland

27th January 2014 09:58

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rory best cian healy jamie heaslip ireland

Key men: Healy and Heaslip

With the Six Nations kicking off this weekend, we take a closer look at the prospects of each competing team. Next up, Ireland.

After a disappointing fifth-placed finish in last year's Six Nations, Ireland will be determined to get back in the Championship mix in 2014.

Last Year: It all started so brightly for Ireland as they conquered the Millennium Stadium thanks to a dominant first-half performance, which ultimately saw off holders Wales in Round One.

Brian O'Driscoll, Simon Zebo and Cian Healy crossed for the visitors for a 30-3 lead just after half-time before back came Wales, just short in the end.

Defeat against England - the first in Dublin to their rivals in a decade of the Championship - was a sobering result the following week before a loss at Murrayfield all but ended their title hopes.

Round Four saw them draw 12 apiece with France at the Aviva Stadium but then came their lowest point of the campaign, a defeat in Italy that saw them finish in fifth spot.

That effort ultimately cost Declan Kidney his job as Ireland head coach as some serious soul searching and questions were asked as to why their provinces such as Leinster, Ulster and Munster succeed in the provincial game yet the international team can differ so drastically in form.

This year: A new era is in its infancy under head coach Joe Schmidt but the majority of the early signs are positive for Irish supporters.

Their year-ending efforts against Samoa and New Zealand were sandwiched either side of a disappointing showing against Australia, but that 22-24 loss to the All Blacks will have given them plenty of confidence moving forward.

We would have mentioned him in the below section, but their key player over the next few years is Sean O'Brien, who the Irish Rugby Union and Leinster have done well to keep in their proximity.

In all honesty, O'Brien and most recently Jamie Heaslip couldn't ask for a better environment than they are already in to flourish as international players are well looked after in the PRO12.

Anyway, this Six Nations is all about consistency for Ireland and back-to-back home games, against Scotland and Wales, will be the cornerstone of their campaign. Win both and the Round 3 game at Twickenham could well be the critical fixture of the competition.

If you haven't already guessed, we see a positive 2014 under Schmidt as they have several players in good form such as Cian Healy, Paul O'Connell and Conor Murray.

It will be interesting though to see how they cope without the go-forward that O'Brien offers and also whether Jonathan Sexton can shrug off what's been tough few months at Racing Métro and recapture the form that helped the British and Irish Lions win.

Key Player(s): Two or three names spring to mind but we will settle on Paul O'Connell. The Munster second-row has been excellent in recent Heineken Cup action and looks refreshed and full of running.

He mentioned recently that he has a group of medics and coaches who "know his body" and that moving to France was not for him, with his recovery from a troublesome injury spell now looking to be behind him. Without O'Brien, both O'Connell and Healy's carrying will be vital to Ireland's hopes and if the former is on song, there are few better lock forwards playing the game.

Player(s) to Watch: Of course Healy, O'Connell, Heaslip, O'Driscoll and Sexton will need to be on song, but one player who's getting better match by match is scrum-half Conor Murray. Another from Thomond Park, Murray was selected ahead of Greig Laidlaw and Danny Care to tour with the Lions, which caused some murmurs of discontent.

One pundit stated recently that if there had been a fourth Test then Murray would have started it, which we agree with. Murray is an intelligent man to have at the base and one cannot understate how vital his form will be in these eight weeks.

Prospects: There is no doubt they will improve on last year's effort - it is hard not to - but whether they can push for the title is a sizeable ask. They've plenty of experience in the XV and also a coach who is top drawer, which is why we go for, at worst, a third place finish.

Fixtures:

Feb 2: v Scotland - Home
Feb 8: v Wales - Home
Feb 22: v England - Away
Mar 8: v Italy - Home
Mar 15: v France - Away

by Adam Kyriacou
@PlanetRugbyAK

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