Next in our set of previews ahead of the 2016 Six Nations, we examine the prospects of Joe Schmidt’s Ireland.
Life after Paul O’Connell begins in 2016 as Ireland look to move on from a disappointing exit in the recent Rugby World Cup quarter-final.
Defeat to Argentina wasn’t a massive shock but what hurt Irish fans most was the manner of their 43-20 negative at the Millennium Stadium.
Yes, they had a few injuries but Joe Schmidt’s side were well beaten on the day and because of that performance – and possibly their draw of fixtures – they go into this Six Nations as third favourites with the bookmakers, despite having won the two most recent Championships.
Last Year: It was back-to-back titles for Ireland in the 2015 Six Nations as last day drama saw them do enough against Scotland to win the trophy. They started strongly enough with a 26-3 win in Italy and with fly-half Jonathan Sexton returning for game two against France, an 18-11 victory thanks to his boot, the Irish were two wins from two and alongside familiar rivals England at the summit of the standings.
Next up was a home clash with the aforementioned English and a try from Robbie Henshaw proved the difference in that game as Ireland won 19-9 to assume the box seat. However, smiles turned to frowns the following round a fortnight later as Wales beat them 23-16 in Cardiff.
That meant no team could win the Grand Slam but four nations were gunning for the title, albeit France needed something of a miracle. And it turned out Ireland – playing in the middle game of the day – did enough thanks to a 40-10 win in Scotland as they retained the title.
This Year: Unlike last year, their opener is one of the toughest on the Six Nations schedule as they face Wales. Fortunately the Irish have home advantage but many are predicting Warren Gatland’s men to win this year’s title after their impressive performances at the World Cup.
Not having O’Connell, Iain Henderson and Peter O’Mahony due to either retirement or injury, plus fitness concerns over Cian Healy and Mike Ross, is a worry while in the backline Luke Fitzgerald and Tommy Bowe are sidelined, with Sexton and Robbie Henshaw surely not 100 percent.
All of the above is a huge worry ahead of facing Wales and then away trips to France and England in a difficult start to the Championship. If though they can come through those games with two wins then a home run-in against Italy and Scotland would seem ideal for a title push.
Key Players: Put simply Ireland need Jonathan Sexton firing on all cylinders if they are to win the Six Nations. He hasn’t been doing that for Leinster so far this season in the PRO12 and Champions Cup and that is a worry so Conor Murray needs to share the playmaking workload.
Rory Best will also have plenty on his plate as Ireland’s new captain as he takes over the job from the talismanic O’Connell. What a task.
Players to watch: Ireland will need their back-row to stand up in 2016 and Sean O’Brien is one player who can have a huge say in matches. If he is at his carrying best alongside Jamie Heaslip and at a later date Chris Henry (shoulder injury), they stand a chance against any side. A new back-row forward is also ready to announce himself on the Test stage and keep an eye out for him, the destructive CJ Stander.
Prospects: Have they been prematurely and unfairly written off? On paper this is still a strong unit and despite provincial woes so far in 2015/16, we expect the internationals to raise their game starting this weekend. Their centre options are young but more than capable of a strong campaign but one feels the second-row is where the big concern will lie. Who will step up in the absence of O’Connell and Henderson when they face impressive rival lock duos? If Ireland are found wanting then the top two, let alone a third straight title is a tough ask.
Sunday, February 7 v Wales (Aviva Stadium)
Saturday, February 13 v France (Stade de France)
Saturday, February 27 v England (Twickenham)
Saturday, March 3 v Italy (Aviva Stadium)
Saturday, March 19 v Scotland (Aviva Stadium)