State of the Nation: Dominant Ireland in outstanding shape ahead of Rugby World Cup title tilt
With the dust settling on the 2023 Six Nations, we delve into the state of affairs of each of the six teams. Finally, it’s Ireland.
Who can stop Andy Farrell’s men? New Zealand tried and failed, South Africa tried and failed and most recently the whole of Europe tried and failed. They are the number one team in the world and showed why with a stunning Six Nations triumph.
No one got close, not even France, who finished just behind them in the rankings, as the Irish dominated the recent Championship to finally claim the silverware, giving them something tangible to match their on-field dominance over the past 12 months.
It was a significant achievement for Farrell’s charges, who went into this year with questions being raised over their ability to maintain their form in a World Cup year after their previous failures. In 2018, Ireland were in fine shape heading into 2019, but a 32-20 home defeat to England in their Six Nations opener halted any momentum they had built.
A disastrous 12 months was to follow, culminating in a humiliating 46-14 loss to New Zealand. That season arguably had repercussions for the first 18 months of Farrell’s time in charge as the new boss struggled to turn things around.
The 47-year-old received plenty of criticism in 2020 and in the early part of 2021, but they have displayed tremendous development since a 32-18 triumph over the Red Rose marked the beginning of a stunning run of results.
Unlike the final year of Joe Schmidt’s time in charge, it still feels like Ireland are improving under Farrell. Their dominant 34-10 victory over Wales – their first success in Cardiff for a decade – at the start of the 2023 Six Nations basically allayed any fears that they would go the same way as previous Irish teams.
By following that up with an impressive 32-19 success over fellow title challengers France, the path was very much open for them to claim just their fourth-ever Grand Slam. And they duly repeated the heroics of 1948, 2009 and 2018 by beating Italy, Scotland and most latterly England to etch themselves into the history books.
The Irishmen had their wobbles in all three games but they never felt out of control, while their ability to adapt to the various challenges they faced was hugely impressive. The high attrition rate which hampered their game against Scotland would have seen most sides lose their composure but, if anything, it refocused their minds.
Despite seeing both hookers go down, leaving them with Cian Healy in the middle of the scrum and flanker Josh van der Flier throwing into the lineouts, Farrell’s charges simply found a way to overcome those obstacles and emerge on the right side of the scoreline.
At the moment, Ireland are imperious and able to respond to pretty much anything that comes their way. The question is ultimately whether they can handle the pressure for when the Rugby World Cup comes around.
Against England, in their Six Nations finale, there were signs of fallibility as the high stakes nature of the contest, as well as the duress the Red Rose put them under, took its toll, but once again they regrouped and found a way to win.
No doubt Freddie Steward’s undeserved red card helped but, by that point, the Irish had already started to get on top and most likely would have claimed the victory with room to spare. That 13-point triumph was their joint-lowest winning margin, which simply showed how dominant the Irishmen truly were in the tournament.
As a result, they can rightly go into the World Cup with supreme confidence, but there will always be that nagging doubt that has been brought on by 36 years of failure in the competition. Never have they reached the semi-finals and to do so in France they will have to beat either the hosts or the All Blacks in the last-eight.
Either way, this should still be the best Ireland side to ever play in the global tournament. Not only do they have quality throughout the 23, but more importantly there is depth in most positions, as evidenced by their ability to not suffer much, or any, drop-off following injuries to key players.
The age profile is also good, with only Peter O’Mahony, Healy, Conor Murray, Bundee Aki and Johnny Sexton realistically looking at France 2023 as their final World Cup.
Ireland's strength in depth:
"At the beginning if we said Tom O'Toole is going to be playing at tighthead for a significant part of the game vs England for a Grand Slam, we would've have been a bit nervous.
"But he's just grown and developed as have so many others!"#VMTVRugby pic.twitter.com/kFs3qvIBZI
— Virgin Media Sport (@VMSportIE) March 21, 2023
Johnny Sexton conundrum
For all that depth, however, the issue remains as to whether Ireland can adequately replace Sexton should he go down injured. Considering the hits he takes, the fly-half’s durability has been impressive, but the physical issues are becoming more apparent and, in a competition as condensed and intense as the global tournament, he has to be managed well.
Ross Byrne appears to have taken the role of back-up and, when given the opportunity, he has filled in nicely, shining against France when the 37-year-old was taken off early in the second period. Byrne has come a long way since his nightmare at Twickenham in the 2019 warm-up, a result and performance which saw him left at home by Schmidt ahead of the World Cup in Japan.
It is, though, an altogether different challenge taking the reins in a quarter-final against either France or New Zealand should Sexton go down, which is why so much hinges on keeping the Test centurion fit during those September and October months.
Such problems should not occur in other positions, with Ireland evidently well stocked in pretty much every area. As their U20 side have shown, by winning back-to-back age-grade Six Nations Grand Slams, there is a plethora of talent coming through in the country.
On current form, Ireland look unstoppable. Previously injuries would have curtailed their campaign but not on the evidence of the recent Six Nations, with Farrell’s men dealing impressively with any setbacks that came their way.
The Irish will therefore go into the World Cup as one of the favourites and, make no mistake, they have the ability to genuinely challenge for the title this time around. The issue is that so do three other teams on their side of the draw.
It means that another quarter-final exit is not out of the question, with the French or All Blacks providing stern opposition in the last-eight, but that will be on World Rugby and their inability to organise a fair draw, rather than Ireland themselves.
All the cogs are in place for the Irish to have their best-ever global tournament but there will inevitably be concerns that it goes the same way as previous campaigns. We couldn’t confidently say a last-exit exit won’t happen, given how tough their encounter will be in the knockout stages, but Farrell’s side have the quality, as well as the variety, to reach the latter stages of the World Cup and, potentially, to win the whole thing.
READ MORE: State of the Nation: France’s future still very bright despite finishing as Six Nations runners-up