Next in our previews ahead of the Six Nations we examine the prospects of last year’s second-placed finishers, Joe Schmidt’s Ireland.
Ireland will be desperate to return to winning ways. After back-to-back Six Nations triumphs in 2014 and 2015, they have had to endure third-placed and second-placed finishes and will be determined to deny England a record third successive Six Nations crown.
Schmidt has a youthful side at his disposal having recently introduced players ike Jacob Stockdale, Andrew Conway and Chris Farrell to the mix along with already established young players such as Robbie Henshaw who is only 24 but already has 31 caps to his name.
But they will need to show the sort of big-match temperament that has gone missing from their game in recent times if they are to upset the hierarchy.
Last year: The Irish started their tournament poorly, as has become customary in recent editions, but it still came as a surprise when they lost 27-22 to Scotland at Murrayfield in Round One. They followed this up with a 63-10 thumping of Italy in Rome almost as if to compensate for the previous week’s lapse.
They then scraped to a 19-9 win over France in Dublin followed by a disappointing 22-9 defeat to Wales before recovering strongly to beat England 13-9 and in doing so, deny the English a second grand slam in a row.
Joe Schmidt’s side finished second in the standings thanks to a superior points difference, equal on 14 points with France and Scotland.
This year: While Ireland have scored fifty or more points in four of their last five games, they have done so mainly against so-called minnows.
Joe Schmidt’s may suffer in the tournament due to not having faced testing enough opposition since the previous edition. Indeed, their fixture list since Six Nations 2017 reads as follows; USA, Japan (twice), South Africa, Fiji and Argentina.
While it is true that the Springboks are far from the force they used to be, Ireland were superb in that 38-3 demolition at the Aviva and should they replicate that sort of performance in the Six Nations, they will pose a significant threat.
The crucial clash will come in round three against Wales. Should they pass that test, it should set up a mouthwatering final against England in the final round.
Key players: Tadgh Furlong is now regarded as one of the world’s best tighthead props, having enjoyed a wonderful 2017 in which he started all three British and Irish Lions Tests against the All Blacks.
CJ Stander was nominated for the Six Nations 2017 player of the year after scoring a hat-trick against Italy. The hard-man of the side, Stander will bring one powerful carry after another and also put in more than his shift on defence.
Players to watch: Jacob Stockdale, who has 17 tries in 36 appearances for Ulster, has begun his international career in blistering form, bagging four tries in his four appearances thus far. The 21-year-old winger has plenty of pace and power as well as a deceptive step up his sleeve.
Bundee Aki only recently qualified to play for Ireland but is a brilliant acquisition as he brings a real physical approach at 12. He should form a solid combination with Robbie Henshaw, having developed a good understanding during their PRO12 title-winning time together at Connacht.
Prospects: Ireland, will as usual, pose a huge threat and will be many people’s favourites. The scheduling has favoured them this time around as they play England last. They have more depth in their squad than England, taking in to the account that England have more injuries at present, and this will give the Irish the advantage the longer the competition draws on.
The scheduling also favours them in that they play France and Italy away and then Wales and Scotland at home. It is better to have home advantage for what should be the more difficult matches.
With Leinster doing so well at present, the majority of the side will arrive confident and on form and we expect this to translate to the international arena.
Saturday, February 3 v France (Stade France)
Saturday, February 10 v Italy (Aviva Stadium)
Saturday, February 24 v Wales (Aviva Stadium)
Saturday, March 10 v Scotland (Aviva Stadium)
Saturday, March 17 v England (Twickenham)