Irish rugby is in rude health. Shorn of the controversies bogging down their fellow home nations, they head into the Six Nations on a well-earned pedestal. Ranked number one in the world, Ireland may lack the glamour of their French counterparts, but they are ruthlessly efficient, masters in attention to detail, precise and cohesive. Their ranking is a testament to their sustained excellence. But we were saying all these things in 2019, weren’t we? Can Ireland manage the weight of the expectation they have created?
2022 was an excellent year for Ireland, the highlight being their superb, historic series win in New Zealand. Ireland have become something of a bogey side for the All Blacks, winning four of their last six encounters. The Irish also won all three of their autumn internationals, including gritty wins over South Africa and Australia. Ireland never really got out of second gear in the autumn, yet despite being involved in two tight games, you never felt they would lose. A mark of a good side is one that can win when they aren’t playing at their best, and Ireland certainly displayed that in the autumn. The only slight disappointment of 2022 was being pipped to the Six Nations title by the French, who they will tussle with for glory again this year.Embed from Getty Images
So what makes Ireland the best in the world? Ireland are ruthlessly efficient; every facet of their game is executed at high precision. They dominate the contact zone, both offensively and defensively. Ireland’s game is built around creating quick ball; their clearout work and ball presentation are excellent. As Leinster have shown in recent weeks, quick ball can obliterate any defence. Ireland’s attack is extremely fluid, with multiple phase options, creating multiple options for the ball carrier and creating headaches for the opposition. Defensively, their line speed is blistering, while there is no better side in World Rugby at the breakdown. The Irish team has a plethora of poachers, the king being World Rugby’s Player of the Year, Josh van Der Flier. Speed, skill, and physicality form the fundamentals of the Irish game, combined with excellent decision-making and a calculated ruthlessness.
The Irish squad contains a potent blend of youth and experience, with players mentally hardened from their last World Cup year when the wheels came off spectacularly. The Irish have relatively few injuries, a testament to how well their players are looked after by the IRU, though Robbie Henshaw will be a big miss. Two of their key players, the evergreen Jonny Sexton and Tadhg Furlong, are expected to be fit. Sexton’s influence on the team can not be understated; as impressive as Ross Bryne was in the autumn, Sexton elevates the Irish to another level. Furlong is just as crucial, not just to their set piece but also in the loose, where his deft handling and ability to act as a pivot is crucial to their attacking game. It’s a squad that should be brimming with confidence, especially their Leinster contingent, who have yet to taste defeat this season.Embed from Getty Images
Ireland kick off their campaign with a trip to Cardiff. Welsh rugby is in disarray, but Gatland will have galvanised his troops, and they will relish being the underdogs. However, if Ireland play to their potential, they should dispatch with the Welsh fairly easily. The following week is the big one as they welcome France to the Aviva. In what was a bruising encounter, Ireland paid the price for an ill-disciplined first half in their loss in Paris last year. It’s a fascinating contest with two sides who are destructive in different ways; Ireland, with their patient multi-phase play, waiting to exploit flaws in the opposition defence, against a French side who are devastating in transition. Ireland may look to take France on aerially, an area where England exposed a few chinks last year. Scotland and Italy should represent little threat before they close the tournament at home to England, potentially sealing a grand slam in the process.
Nothing short of a Grand Slam will do for Ireland; with a World Cup on the horizon, they’ll be keen to show their fellow contenders that they aren’t going to slip up this time. Ireland fell off the horse in 2019, but this feels like a much better side, taking the accuracy and precision of the Schmidt era and adding a dose of Andy Farrell’s northern grit. There is a nice balance to the Irish squad, with several players at the peak of their careers. One more Grand Slam for Jonny Sexton? I wouldn’t bet against it.