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Six Nations preview: Ireland

Garry Doyle

Ireland approach the Six Nations as masters of all they survey in the local vicinity, that is, the Pro14. Dominant over their Scottish, Welsh and Italian neighbours, confidence coarses through their veins until they meet a gnarly English and French side in uncompromising form. The challenge for Andy Farrell’s men, then, is to smash the glass ceiling and bloody the nose of the two favourites. First up, they will need to reaffirm they are Celtic top-dogs in Cardiff, a place they have come unstuck on a fair few occasions.

Coach: Andy Farrell

Captain: Johnny Sexton

Grand Slams: 3

Strengths

Remember the 2015 World Cup quarter-final between Ireland and Argentina? Joe Schmidt will never forget it. This was the day the former Ireland coach realised he needed to build a world class squad, not just a team, after injury and suspension robbed him of five of his starting XV, Paul O’Connell, Johnny Sexton, Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony and Jared Payne.

The leadership vacuum was quickly exposed by the Pumas, the lessons instantly absorbed by Schmidt. From then on, he planned for the future as well as the now, the legacy of that groundwork felt by his successor. Entering this tournament, Andy Farrell may be missing Caelan Doris and Jacob Stockdale and may be fully aware that Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, Bundee Aki, Dave Kilcoyne and Jordan Larmour are undercooked in terms of game minutes. And yet, no one is panicking. Andrew Porter has deputised competently for Furlong; Robbie Henshaw is arguably a better option than Aki at 12; while the complimentary gifts of Hugo Keenan, Larmour and Keith Earls in the back three more than compensates for Stockdale’s absence. 

Additionally, there’s also the feeling Ireland finally have the measure of Wales, after beating them twice last year, while they’ve had the measure of Scotland and Italy for a couple of decades. The French and English are evidently more challenging hurdles to jump, however both those games are in Dublin where Ireland haven’t lost more than once in any championship season, since 1999. 

Johnny Sexton
Johnny Sexton still sets the emotional tone for Ireland (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Weaknesses 

They are much more noticeable than in 2018, when a record-breaking year saw Ireland record their first grand slam since ’09; first series win in the Southern Hemisphere since ’79 and first victory on Irish soil over the All Blacks. While many of that cast are still around, they aren’t as nimble on the biggest stage. Conor Murray and Cian Healy have slowed; Johnny Sexton has aged. 

Then there’s the game-plan. During Schmidt’s final year, it became too rigid, the players frightened to express themselves. Glasnost arrived under Farrell but the suspicion remains that that the new ‘heads-up’ strategy is not sufficiently detailed. 

Victories in six of Ireland’s nine games last year cannot be discounted. But the three defeats, twice to England, once to France, made for painful viewing; the physicality of England’s set-piece compounded by Ireland’s recent tendency to fall asleep for periods of key games.   

Most valuable player

James Ryan. Since his emergence on the 2017 to Japan and the US, Ryan has been burdened with the ‘next Paul O’Connell’ label, a tag he swiftly grew tired of. Yet it isn’t going to go away, particularly when his game continues to evolve. After his initial coltish burst, Ryan has since added leadership qualities to his arsenal, captaining Ireland in Sexton’s absence last November.

It’s in the blood. His great grandfather (also James Ryan) fought in Ireland’s War of Independence and swiftly became a leading figure in Irish politics after independence, serving in government for over 30 years, culminating in his position as Minister for Finance between 1957 and 1965.

If an Irish team without Sexton was once unimaginable, well that considerable burden has since passed to his Leinster colleague. At 24 he has already won a grand slam, Heineken Champions Cup and three Pro14 titles. 

James Ryan
James Ryan has grown in stature in recent years (Photo By Seb Daly/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Player to watch

Craig Casey, the Munster scrum-half is uncapped yet already has made a lot of noise. “Literally,” said Marcus Horan, the Irish grand slam winning loosehead from ’09. “The word from (Munster) training is that he’s not shy about bossing people around. That’s good. That’s what a pack wants.”

What Ireland and Munster have wanted for some time is a succession plan in the No9 shirt for when time moves on and Conor Murray is no longer able to carry the playmaking burden alone. They have that now with Casey, a dynamic presence around the fringes, a brave tackler and a superb passer. The fact he has kept John Cooney out of the squad is a statement in itself.

What the coach says

Andy Farrell: “We want to be in the last week with something to play for. The bigger picture is for us to get back up to the standard that we aspire to be at. That standard, at the minute, is being hit by a couple of teams – you talk about France and England being favourites, we’ve got to try and earn the right to get back in that bracket.”

Verdict 

Momentum is always key in this tournament and the fact Ireland open up in Cardiff is a blessing rather than a curse, Wales being considerably weaker than they were when Ireland last visited here, back in 2019. The France game is the key one in their schedule. Win that and the championship is a possibility although the likelier scenario is that the best Ireland can hope for is to finish second, behind England.

Ireland’s Six Nations squad

Forwards: Tadhg Beirne, Will Connors, Caelan Doris, Ultan Dillane, Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy, Dave Heffernan, Iain Henderson, Rob Herring, Ronan Kelleher, Dave Kilcoyne, Peter O’Mahony, Tom O’Toole, Andrew Porter, Quinn Roux, Rhys Ruddock, James Ryan, CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier. 

Backs: Bundee Aki, Billy Burns, Ross Byrne, Craig Casey, Andrew Conway, Shane Daly, Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Jamison Gibson-Park, Robbie Henshaw, Hugo Keenan, Jordan Larmour, James Lowe, Stuart McCloskey, Conor Murray, Garry Ringrose, Jonathan Sexton (captain)

Fixtures 

Wales (a) Sunday 7 Feb, 15.00

France (h) Sunday 14 Feb, 15.00

Italy (a) Saturday 27 Feb, 14.15

Scotland (a) Sunday 14 Mar, 15.00

England (h) Saturday 20 Mar, 16.45

Six Nations stats

Most Six Nations appearances: Brian O’Driscoll (65)

Most Six Nations points: Ronan O’Gara (557)

Most Six Nations tries: Brian O’Driscoll (26)

Captain of the Ireland team on most occasions: Brian O’Driscoll (41)