Six Nations preview: Ireland’s year as Grand Slam awaits for Andy Farrell’s side
Next in our set of previews ahead of the Six Nations we examine the prospects of last year’s second place finishers, Andy Farrell’s Ireland.
While the majority of their rivals have had outgoings and incomings at coaching level or are struggling with injury issues, there has been a noticeable feeling of stability, belief and togetherness in this Ireland squad in recent times.
Currently ranked as the world number one side after a 2022 that saw them lose just two games – to New Zealand and France away – the Irish are in the perfect position to launch a Six Nations title challenge that would build significant confidence ahead of the Rugby World Cup in France later this year.
Many are even discussing the prospect of a Grand Slam for Farrell‘s men and on paper we find no reason to dismiss such talk as Ireland look primed for glory, especially with reigning champions France and England coming to the Aviva Stadium this year.
A record of four wins out of five saw the Irish finish in second position as the aforementioned French claimed their first Six Nations clean sweep since 2010.
Ireland began in impressive fashion as they saw off Wales 29-7 in Dublin thanks to tries from Bundee Aki, Andrew Conway (2) and Garry Ringrose, with Johnny Sexton adding three conversions and a penalty as they kicked off in perfect style.
However, the key game would arrive the following week as a visit to Paris saw France come out on top, winning 30-24 despite Ireland scoring three tries to France’s two. Melvyn Jaminet’s assured boot proved decisive on the day as he finished with 20 points as Les Bleus took a significant step towards silverware.
Ireland responded in emphatic fashion with a 57-6 win over Italy before a four-try 32-15 success at Twickenham – thanks in no small part to Charlie Ewels’ second minute red card – tasted sweet for the travelling fans in green.
All 1⃣3⃣ phases of attack v defence as Jack Conan secured Irish victory v England on Saturday#GuinnessSixNations pic.twitter.com/ogpD8A7nFj
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 14, 2022
Last up for Farrell’s men was another maximum haul as Scotland were put to the sword, 26-5, in Dublin as Ireland finished with 21 table points thanks to four try bonus-points and that losing bonus in Paris.
They subsequently went to New Zealand in July full of confidence and claimed that historic series victory over the All Blacks that made the whole world sit up and take notice of their rise to the top echelons of the international game.
With a further three wins in the Autumn Nations Series – against Fiji, Australia and world champions South Africa – Ireland brought down the curtain on a special 12 months that, maybe to their benefit due to France’s Six Nations success, still left an aftertaste of unfinished business which stands them in good stead for 2023.
Hosting both France and England does hand Ireland an edge in the pre-tournament discussions, but focusing on anything but Wales in the cauldron that is the Principality Stadium would be foolish. That first-up challenge against the Welsh, amplified by Warren Gatland’s return to the hot-seat, is a very tricky opening meeting.
Come through that and in the home comforts of Dublin the following week against a France squad that is missing a couple of household names, Ireland will be hunting revenge from last year in a game that could well determine the destination of the Six Nations crown. Victory would also louden talk of a Grand Slam.
Italy on the road should be a comfortable result before Scotland cannot be underestimated at Murrayfield and then it’s all on an Aviva Stadium showdown with England that could well be for the clean sweep. How tough and confident an English side they will face depends on Steve Borthwick’s impact at Twickenham, but weighing up the schedule and the personnel Ireland has at its disposal, it’s no surprise many are predicting Six Nations glory and a first Grand Slam since 2018.
So many to choose from but there’s no hiding from Johnny Sexton‘s importance to this group of players, both on and off the field. Such a composed Test match animal, this could well be his last Six Nations, which will only add to the competitiveness he brings to the Ireland set-up. He will set the highest of standards.
Sexton’s combination with Jamison Gibson-Park has taken Ireland to a new level over the past couple of years and there’s no understating his importance to Farrell’s game-plan. It will be interesting to see whether it is the experienced Conor Murray or Craig Casey as his back-up on the replacements bench.
In the pack, the outstanding Dan Sheehan is set for another all-action Championship at hooker, with Ronan Kelleher (if fit) likely in reserve, while the reigning World Rugby Player of the Year, Josh van der Flier, needs no introduction as his consistency and try-scoring threat on the openside could prove vital again.
Players to watch
An injury-disrupted 2022 means James Lowe will be raring to go this year and we’re expecting him to hit the ground running for Ireland on the left wing. It’s not just his pace, footwork and eagerness for work that catches the eye, as his booming left boot has also been key to Ireland’s exits from their own 22.
JAMES LOWE THIS MAN HAS A FAMILY pic.twitter.com/VmMAhEJtQd
— Andy McGeady (@andymcgeady) February 20, 2022
We’re also excited to see whether Gavin Coombes is let off the leash at international level after outstanding performances for Munster this season. The possibility of moving Caelan Doris to the blindside and utilising Coombes from the outset at eight is one option for Farrell, or alternatively Coombes’ impact off the bench in the closing stages will definitely be a handy weapon to deploy – it’s arguably something Ireland have missed.
One question mark in this squad, however, is who will fill the void left by the injured Robbie Henshaw at inside centre. There is Stuart McCloskey, Bundee Aki and impressive youngster Jamie Osborne available to Farrell, with Aki the likely starter despite his lack of game time for Connacht in recent months. Such a consistent performer at Test level, the former Chiefs stalwart will no doubt be determined to return to action on one of the biggest stages there is.
Whoever starts at 12 will have a man in form outside them as Garry Ringrose has become undroppable at centre, with his form for Leinster and Ireland over the past year tracking in the perfect direction with a World Cup not too far away. He will hope to continue improving during this Championship.
Despite three away games, the aforementioned schedule is kind to the Irish and it remains to be seen whether facing Wales first up instead of a few weeks down the track in Cardiff would have been a tougher proposition. On form, Ireland should come through that opener with relative ease before that massive home clash with France follows in Round Two, which is obviously pivotal to where the tournament silverware ends up. A victory there before the week’s break would be huge.
Italy (away) should be straightforward before Scotland at Murrayfield comes with its difficulties, but we’re still expecting a four from four record before England stand in their path of a Six Nations and Grand Slam to boot. It’s hard to see the Red Rose spoiling the party as this is Ireland’s year. First place.
Saturday, February 4 v Wales (Principality Stadium)
Saturday, February 11 v France (Aviva Stadium)
Saturday, February 25 v Italy (Stadio Olimpico)
Sunday, March 12 v Scotland (Murrayfield)
Saturday, March 18 v England (Aviva Stadium)
READ MORE: Six Nations preview: Warren Gatland’s return to take Wales to a third-place finish