For the last two years, Ireland have been tipped to win the Six Nations and failed to do so. 2016 was supposed to be there year as England were rebuilding under a new coach, but that championship triggered what has now transpired to be one of the most successful periods in English rugby history. Ireland could well have won back the title last year after beating England in Dublin, but previous slip-ups against Scotland and Wales put paid to those hopes.
Yet here we are again, heading into a Six Nations championship, were the majority are predicting a Irish championship victory. Why?
A combination of factors are probably behind this expectation in the media for Ireland to awake from the minor slumber and match England’s level. Their clubs are making great strides in Europe this season, their key players rank among the best in the world and in Joe Schmidt they have an incredibly experienced head coach that already has two Six Nations titles under his belt.
The only thing missing for Ireland is consistency, and in the past that has been down to the fact that when injuries strike the leaders within the squad, the players coming in have not quite met the calibre needed to succeed in the Six Nations.
But there was a moment last year, just minutes before kick-off in that final match of the championship where Ireland ended England’s Grand Slam dream, where the first sign of change came. The stadium announcer inside the Aviva Stadium confirmed that Jamie Heaslip, the first-choice No 8, had suffered injury in the warm-up, and that Munster captain Peter O’Mahony had come into the side as a result. A huge roar went up from the partisan crowd, O’Mahony tore the England lineout to pieces, claimed the man of the match award, and England went home having been dealt their first defeat under Eddie Jones – much to Irish delight.
Fast-forward to this weekend and Ireland’s injury list may not be as lengthy as their rivals, but it features some very big names. Heaslip remains absent, along with flanker Sean O’Brien and centres Garry Ringrose and Jaryd Payne, and yet Ireland now have the depth to cope with such injuries to key players. Ringrose’s absence is likely to see Bundee Aki retain the 13 shirt, while a back-row shorn of Heaslip and O’Brien will still likely read ‘O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier and Stander’ – with a back-up of Iain Henderson, Jordi Murphy and Jack Conan looking none too shabby either.
Those may not all be household names, but they are in-form names and Schmidt is fully aware of this. “Some guys are in really good form, and some have been a little bit intermittent with their opportunities to play in recent years but have now got a good slice of match minutes under their belt. I think across the board that allows us to have a real internal competition for places, then externally once selections are made.
“I think whenever there gets to be a little bit too much complacency in a group it can become a little bit mediocre, so for us to have players in form particularly challenging established players, and those established players being spurred on by younger players in form or even the established players being in form, is great.”
Maybe it’s this reason that across the Irish Sea, Eddie Jones gets a little bit uncomfortable every time Ireland are mentioned. “Ireland are the favourites,” he has claimed, which is half to do with the fact that England – in his opinion – deserve more credit for their achievements over the last two years and half a siege mentality to ring the very best out of his players.
But with the squad depth now there to rival England, Ireland must now try and find the consistency. There’s no question they can spoil the party again at Twickenham on the final weekend, but it’s the trip to Paris on this weekend or the visit of Wales and Scotland to the Aviva that likely decide how Ireland’s tournament plays out. If they can find that much-needed consistency, Ireland could finally live up to their billing.
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