Following two years of underperformance, can Joe Schmidt’s Ireland show the consistency needed to reclaim the Six Nations title in 2018?
Under Schmidt, Ireland claimed the title in 2014 and 2015 but have been forced to watch on as England lifted the trophy for the last two championships – albeit the men in green beat Eddie Jones’ side on the final weekend in 2017.
Here’s everything you need to know ahead of Ireland’s opening clash with France in Paris…
- Six Nations since 2000: Three-time winners (2009, 2014, 2015)
- Overall: 13 titles outright (1894, 1896, 1899, 1935, 1948, 1949, 1951, 1974, 1982, 1985, 2009, 2014, 2015)
- France – Stade de France – Saturday, February 3 – 5.45pm (GMT)
- Italy- Aviva Stadium – Saturday, February 10 – 2.15pm (GMT)
- Wales – Aviva Stadium – Saturday, February 24 – 2.15pm (GMT)
- Scotland – Aviva Stadium – Saturday, March 10 – 2.15pm (GMT)
- England – Twickenham Stadium – Saturday, March 17 – 2.45pm (GMT)
The 2017 Championship started in the worst possible fashion for Ireland, but ended with a superb performance.
The opening day saw them defeated by Scotland at Murrayfield, forfeiting a clear scrum advantage and wealth of possession and territory to lose the game 27-22.
Victories over Italy in Rome and France in Dublin followed, before defeat in Cardiff saw any title hopes evaporate.
Joe Schmidt’s side saved their best performance for the final weekend, however, as they dispatched an England side chasing a second consecutive Grand Slam and world record for Test victories in succession.
Will Ireland get to their final clash with England this year with some silverware on the line?
Ireland are in a strong run of form coming into this year’s Six Nations, arriving off the back of seven consecutive victories.
During the most recent international window in November, Ireland comfortably beat South Africa and Argentina at the Aviva Stadium, while a second string side also edged past Fiji.
Ireland are in good form and beat South Africa in November
Indeed, every Tier-1 nation in world rugby has been defeated by Ireland over the last two years. On their day, they are a match for anyone.
Other plus points for Ireland is the sheer depth at their disposal and the form of the respective provinces.
History has shown the Irish national side to be at their best when the four provinces are going strongly. Leinster and Munster have booked home Champions Cup quarter-finals, as have Connacht in the Challenge Cup, while Ulster were one poor display at Wasps away from doing the same.
Schmidt has built extensive depth across his squad in almost every position. A situation alien to Ireland for many years.
There’s not a lot of negative news in Irish rugby currently, but there are two brief caveats which spring to mind.
Two of the form players in European club rugby at present are Scarlets lock Tadhg Beirne and Munster full-back Simon Zebo. Both are Irish, yet neither are involved.
Beirne will be returning to Ireland next season to join Munster while Zebo will exit to join Racing 92 in Paris. While Schmidt’s selection policy is understandable – it protects the provinces in the long run and allows management of Irish internationals – could its stringent implementation cost Ireland a chance at the title?
Schmidt’s remarks at Wednesday’s Six Nations launch that Zebo was excluded on form alone fooled no one. The Ireland coach is ruthless with his views on this particular area: commit to remaining in Ireland or you will not be involved.
The second dampener on Ireland’s preparation has been injuries – a problem for each and every country coming into this year’s championship.
British and Irish Lions flanker Sean O’Brien is a major loss to the squad, as are Garry Ringrose, Jared Payne and Rhys Ruddock to name a few.
Since last year’s championship, the major changes to the team have come in the second row, centre and on the wing.
Donnacha Ryan’s exit to Racing saw his Test future ended, as Devin Toner and Iain Henderson took over in November as the two first choice locks, with young Leinster forward James Ryan emerging into the reckoning.
In the centre, Jared Payne has not played since the Lions tour to New Zealand in June due to repeated headaches, while Garry Ringrose has suffered with injuries to his shoulder and ankle.
In their places, Connacht centre Bundee Aki made his debut in November against South Africa having qualified on residency and Munster’s summer signing Chris Farrell has emerged as a viable option.
The other major change to the set-up also came in November with Jacob Stockdale’s explosion onto the scene on the left wing. The Ulster wing has four tries in four caps so far.
Johnny Sexton. As is the case with his province Leinster, Ireland just aren’t the same side without Sexton in the team.
The fly-half is an extension of Schmidt on the pitch. Not only does he know his own game inside-out, he knows each and every other player’s game in the Ireland side inside-out.
Outstanding in November, keeping Sexton fit is essential to any potential title tilt.
Ireland’s 36-man squad for the 2018 Six Nations:
BACKS (16) –
Back-Three: Andrew Conway (Munster), Keith Earls (Munster), Rob Kearney (Leinster), Fergus McFadden (Leinster), Jordan Larmour (Leinster), Jacob Stockdale (Ulster)
Centre: Bundee Aki (Connacht), Chris Farrell (Munster), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster), Rory Scannell (Munster)
Fly-half: Joey Carbery (Leinster), Ian Keatley (Munster), Jonathan Sexton (Leinster)
Scrum-half: Kieran Marmion (Connacht), Luke McGrath (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster).
FORWARDS (20) –
Hookers: Rory Best (Ulster), Sean Cronin (Leinster), Rob Herring (Ulster),
Props: James Cronin (Munster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster), Cian Healy (Leinster), Jack McGrath (Leinster), Andrew Porter (Leinster), John Ryan (Munster),
Second-rows: Ultan Dillane (Connacht), Iain Henderson (Ulster), Quinn Roux (Connacht), James Ryan (Leinster), Devin Toner (Leinster)
Back-row: Jack Conan (Leinster), Dan Leavy (Leinster), Jordi Murphy (Leinster), Peter O’Mahony (Munster), CJ Stander (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster).