Respect Earned The Hard Way!

‘Passionate.’ That’s the adjective once commonly used to describe the Irish rugby team. The term was particularly prevalent among the rugby giants of the southern hemisphere. Prior to any big game against opponents from south of the equator, rival players would queue up to tell us how respectful they were of the fighting Irish and how they were  wary of the ‘passion’ Ireland always brought to the party. These extremely patronising descriptions made the cream of Irish sport sound more like horny Love Island contestants than elite sportsmen.

The curious thing about the ‘passion’ label is that was applied long after Ireland became genuine and legitimate contenders on the international stage. In the old amateur and semi-professional days such condescension was perhaps forgivable, but even as the golden generation of Irish rugby was strutting its stuff on the Test stage, opponents could still be heard routinely rabbiting on about Ireland and their famed passion.

I used to wonder about this bizarre tendency. It was excusable when Irish results were unremittingly poor, but why did such attitudes prevail when the men in green were regularly winning in the Test arena? The answer was delivered in the context of Ireland’s unremarkable record against the All Blacks-just one win recorded in countless attempts; last November in Chicago. Before a New Zealand Test a few years ago, I read an interview with a former All Black international explaining the apparent lack of recognition afforded to Ireland’s finest. ‘In order to gain our respect,’ he explained, ‘you have to beat us.’

Well, the vernacular surrounding Irish international rugby has changed markedly from the well worn and tiresome platitudes of the past. Opponents from near and far are falling over themselves to fawn over Joe Schmidt’s record breaking outfit. Recent results tell a magnificent and unprecedented story. Three Six Nations Championships, a Grand Slam, a first win over the Springboks on South African soil and the aforementioned maiden win over the world champion All Blacks is a truly formidable record. And now, remarkably, Ireland’s first ever southern hemisphere series win (against a revitalised Australia) contested over three Tests has just been achieved.

And to think there were idiots calling for Schmidt’s head not so long ago. The absurdity! Ireland’s favourite Kiwi has built a relentless and formidable squad, one capable of consistently overcoming anyone in world rugby. Number two in the world and on merit. And this side is taking Irish rugby to uncharted territory; places the golden generation could only dream of.

At the turn of the century, we marvelled at the infusion of youngsters like Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara who entered Test rugby without the fear and inferiority complex that blighted their predecessors. But the current crop is the product of an even more impressive harvest. Today’s youngsters literally expect to win every game they play. Take James Ryan. Ireland’s new dynamo of a second row has only lost one match as a professional rugby player. Consider that for a moment!

But this is what we’re dealing with. Schmidt and his squad of modest and humble superstars are taking Irish rugby to new, exciting places. The overriding concern of the Irish coach post the 2015 World Cup was to build new depth and resourcefulness into the Irish squad. And while some positions remain relatively callow, there’s no doubt Irish rugby is in as strong a position as it’s ever been. Winning plaudits from all corners of the globe and primed for an assault on rugby’s premier competition. The trophies, of course, tell their own tale, but if you need substantive proof of the esteem Ireland’s players are currently held, just listen to the respectful way opponents are now talking about them. Respect that’s been earned the hard way!

PS The football World Cup has kicked off in far away Russia and the tournament has thus far been characterised by a series of upsets and unexpected results. Despite the unpredictable start, few are expecting too many surprises come the business end of the competition. It’ll be the usual suspects in with a chance of ultimate glory. Or will it? They always seem to fall short and are perpetually addicted to underachievement, but England are due to perform in a major tournament one of these days. Maybe, just maybe, 2018 will be the year?

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

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No Longer Once in a Blue Moon

They didn’t do it with the style and panache we expected, but Leinster duly prevailed as anticipated on 12 May to win an incredible fourth Champions Cup. The muted celebrations after the game told a tale of relief and quiet satisfaction more than exaltation. Indeed, anyone who didn’t know the outcome would swear that Leinster had lost such was Johnny Sexton’s sullen demeanour. One wonders if the perfectionist Irish fly-half actually enjoys days like this or is he too caught up berating himself over perceived errors and looking ahead to the next challenge to savour the moment?

But Leinster did indeed win and what a magnificent achievement it is. Some of us are old enough to remember Munster’s travails in the early years of this competition (or its predecessor to be more precise), when buckets of blood, sweat and tears were expended in the search for the elusive holy grail. All those great performances and victories only to come up short. So near and yet so far! Leinster on a quadruple? Damn it, Munster fought so hard to win one!

Some are even old enough to remember the glorious time when a team of semi-professionals from Ulster blazed a trail for the Irish provinces in the European Cup in the year the English clubs boycotted the competition. Believe me, it was no average achievement as European giants like Toulouse and Stade Francais floundered in Belfast’s cathedral of pain.

In those days, it seemed absurd, inconceivable that an Irish province would ever win four European Cups. The achievement is put into clear context by the numerous obstacles that were put in place to prevent this very eventuality from occurring. The old Heineken Cup was a truly wonderful rugby tournament, adored by fans all over the world. But the English and French club owners didn’t share the supporters’ affection. Some perceived a Celtic bias.

The Anglo-French clubs, financed by tv sugar daddies and billionaire benefactors, were rattled by the illogical success of the Irish provinces. Despite pouring a fortune into the game, the European Cup was a competition they couldn’t buy easily. Unable to beat the Irish as regularly as they wanted, the Anglo-French owners were left with only one option in their myopic minds: to destroy European rugby’s pride and joy.

Maybe they were jealous of the provinces’ success. Maybe they resented that the old ERC was based in Dublin. Whatever the motivation, the moguls were set on dismantling the Heineken Cup. And when the English Premiership clubs unilaterally sold their European tv rights to BT Sport, the writing was on the wall for the European Cup as we knew it. Determined to get a bigger share of the tv and monetary spoils, the English/French clubs and their sympathisers eventually brought the curtain down on the ERC and facilitated the establishment of the EPCR in its place.

Initially, the ploy worked well. The new competition was dominated by our Anglo-French cousins, the first three tournaments being won by Toulon and Saracens; clubs that are the very embodiment of the new European order. Meanwhile, the Irish provinces struggled to get out of the pool stages and it seemed the days of Irish glory in the European Cup had been permanently consigned to the past.

But then something curious happened. The Irish provinces stormed back into contention, culminating in the superb fourth tournament win by the best team in the continent. You see, as it turns out, there are some things that money can’t buy. Irish rugby’s strength is that it controls its players. Once the IRFU made the bold and visionary decision to centrally contract its star names and ward off the avaricious advances of club owners, it set a template for rugby governance that’s the envy of the world. The rewards are there for all to see: two Grand Slams and six Champions Cups tells its own tale.

In all of this, Leinster lead the way and the province is building a legacy that has the potential to last years. The Blues are currently reaping the benefits of a veritable conveyor belt of talent. Brilliant and fearless youngsters like Jordan Larmour, James Ryan and Dan Leavy are the product of an unrivalled schools system that’s producing not just quality but massive strength in depth. The rest of Europe can only look on with envy at the wondrous production line that is the Leinster Academy.

Massive credit goes to Leo Cullen, a coach who was openly questioned in his first season in charge, but has become the first person to win Europe’s premier competition as player and coach. What a story! Cullen’s double act with the ever modest and self-effacing Stuart Lancaster has delivered the goods time and again. Such vindication for the former England coach after his World Cup nightmare. Few would begrudge his ebullience at the final whistle. How sweet his redemption must taste.

But the real plaudits are reserved for the Irish system. It’s been a testing season for Irish rugby for reasons we all know but the Irish have finally rediscovered the winning formula. It’s an incredible achievement given how the odds are stacked against them. Something tells me that we won’t need to wait for a Blue Moon for the next Irish European Cup triumph.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

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A Legacy of Peace!

It may have escaped your attention but today (10 April 2018) is the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). With the institutions the Agreement spawned currently mothballed now and for the foreseeable future, any sense of celebration or euphoria has been sensibly put on hold. No doubt, the powers-that-be hoped that this landmark would be an affirmation of stability and progress, a proclamation of enduring hope, but recent political events in Northern Ireland have underlined what a precarious and fragile business peacemaking undoubtedly is. Still, the unavoidable reality of the present political mess shouldn’t detract from the epochal achievement that is the GFA.

I remember the referendum and campaign like they were yesterday. Having not long secured the ability to vote, the whole event was rather novel and it was impossible not to be caught up in the sheer sense of occasion, the notion that something truly historic and unprecedented was happening. Mine wasn’t a generation that was especially political (unlike today when youngsters start online petitions about everything from protesting against wars to the price of their favourite tea) but not participating in the referendum wasn’t an option here. Most people I knew had serious misgivings about the GFA and its fundamental flaws but there was an impetus behind the campaign that reflected an overwhelming desire for change. We were determined to end the madness of the previous years. It was a vote for a better future. A vote for peace.

It was a euphoric time. And 20 years on, it’s easy to feel deflated and despondent in comparison. Our politicians have failed time and again to deliver on the palpable promise of those heady days. In the midst of petty bickering and disputes over relatively inconsequential issues, it’s hard not to feel disillusioned about the state of local politics. And yet it’s equally easy to forget how massive a triumph the GFA actually represents.

To understand the Agreement’s achievement, you have to put the negotiations in the unremittingly grim context of the time. The ’90s was a dire period for Northern Ireland. Shankill, Greysteel and countless other atrocities haunt everyone who lived through those bleak years. Yet, in spite of the inevitable bitterness and hatred that such events inspired, old enemies sat down, talked, listened and, against all odds, negotiated a political compromise that offered something for everyone. It was no mean feat.

The wholesale disillusion and cynicism that infects any discussion about the GFA is derived from unrealistic expectations regarding what the Agreement could deliver. In the halcyon days post the Agreement’s signing, many deluded themselves that the centuries old Irish problem had been solved, that we were all going to let bygones be bygones and live happily ever after. Such a preposterously idealistic vision was always going to get brought back to earth by the much more nuanced reality. There’s a propensity to look in the Agreement for answers it wasn’t able to deliver and, indeed, never intended to provide.

You see, the Agreement was never meant to be a perpetual and immutable solution to all  Ireland’s ills. In fact, it wasn’t really a settlement as such. Not a permanent one anyway. The GFA was a carefully calibrated and constructed compromise that gave something to everyone who bought into it. Although equality was of course one of the GFA’s central tenets, the Agreement didn’t seek to make everyone the same. One of the great fallacies of the last 20 years is the notion that the GFA meant we could forget our divided history and embrace a common and identical future.  Nationalists weren’t being encouraged to become unionists or vice versa.

Rather, the Agreement provided a framework where both the main traditions in Ireland could pursue their mutually exclusive and divergent agendas, but in a context of power-sharing and peace; in a climate of mutual tolerance and respect. It was about providing space for traditions and communities to respect one another and find ways to work together on areas of mutual interest. True reconciliation was indeed an integral aspiration but in 1998 such considerations were necessarily long term. Much more important 20 years ago was the fostering of  practical and meaningful cooperation; allowing the constitutional issue to resolve itself in the fullness of time.

And it’s those core concepts of mutual tolerance and respect, of parity of esteem; that have suffered so horrendously in the intervening years. As we survey the present wreckage and inertia that characterises modern northern politics, respect is indeed wholly conspicuous by its absence. How on earth can we work on trust and partnership, let alone reconciliation, if there isn’t even basic courtesy and respect? Given the calamitous mess we’re in, therefore, how do we define the bitterly disputed legacy of the GFA? And if there is a legacy, have we really squandered it?

For all our difficulties in Northern Ireland, we’ve come far. We must  remember that. It’s something we tend to overlook in this part of the world. It’s a Northern Irish thing. We blithely ignore our progress and fixate obsessively on our seemingly intractable problems. The glass is always half empty. But on the 20th anniversary of one of the key moments in modern Irish history, it seems more apt to focus on the positive side of the ledger.

In 1998 it seemed implausible, inconceivable even, that Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness could ever be in government together, let alone have a mutual affection and partnership. There was too much history, baggage and animosity. Sinn Féin and the DUP working together? Sure, don’t pigs fly too? And yet it happened. As did so much else besides. You only have to look around Belfast city centre to see how a haunted town has been transformed into a bustling, busy and, yes, increasingly cosmopolitan place. Would any of those breakthroughs have happened without the GFA? Don’t believe it.

So, how should the Agreement be assessed, twenty years on from its codification? Despite its legion of problems, the story of the GFA remains a narrative of success. Of course, there are flaws but its constitutional and political architecture endures in spite of those issues. The most common gripe has always been that the Agreement institutionalised sectarianism; that the GFA created as many problems as it actually solved. There are no shortage of believers in the idea that Northern Ireland’s vast political problems have been exacerbated by the GFA and the awkward idea of ‘constructive ambiguity’ utilised by successive governments to smooth its rocky implementation.

While the idea has plenty of merit, it’s hard to dispute the notion that the Agreement delivered emphatically on its main purpose. If peace was the elusive prize, surely we can withstand a few forks in what was always going to be a difficult road to travel. It’s said that the price of liberty and peace is eternal vigilance and this truism was evidenced within months of the GFA when the Omagh bomb shattered the optimism of Good Friday. However, as we reflect on 20 years of the GFA and the new political dispensation it created, awful events like that have largely been consigned to the past.

Northern Ireland is transformed from where it was 20 years ago. Our peace might be imperfect and Brexit has certainly added another layer of complication to an already  vexed political process, but it’s wrong to discount and squander the gains of the last two decades. Flawed as it undeniably is, the Irish peace process has delivered the goods in so many lasting ways. In terms of legacy, a whole generation has grown up since 1998 that knows nothing of the Troubles. The dark days of the past are something those young people read about in history books. The GFA’s legacy is a legacy of peace. And that’s not too shabby.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

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By https://www.flickr.com/photos/robertpaulyoung/ [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I Believe In Justice

I have an idea. It’s a little out there but hear me out. Why bother? Why bother with a criminal justice system? Why bother with courts of law? Why bother with statutes and legislation? Why bother with a police service? Surely, such antiquated institutions are no longer fit for purpose in the modern world. Instead, why don’t we just try people on Facebook and in the court of public opinion? It’s a genius idea and works out much cheaper than the status quo. It could literally save billions all over the world.

I’m being facetious, of course, but having observed events during the last few weeks I’m starting to think there are those who might favour this drastic course of action. As everyone knows, Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding, Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison were unanimously acquitted of all charges made against them. Increasingly, though, the modern world is ignoring such realities in its insatiable desire for vigilantism and rough justice. Seemingly, our moral arbiters don’t worry so much about such trifling matters as innocence and evidence in the unforgiving court of public opinion.

It was codified as far back as the Magna Carta (and been firmly established since) that free individuals possess an entitlement to be judged by a jury of their peers. Are we really going to squander and relinquish this centuries’ old right because we now have Facebook and Twitter? That’s not very prudent. Not that I’m taking sides in this argument. I’m not taking a position on the case because I don’t have to.

It’s the jury that heard the evidence and it’s the jury’s opinion that matters. Everyone else’s view is completely and utterly irrelevant here. At the end of the day, it’s hard not to feel an enormous amount of sympathy for everyone involved in this deeply unfortunate and regrettable incident. One of the most prominent sentiments expressed in reports following the conclusion of the case was that it produced no winners. Never have truer words been written.

But you don’t have to take sides to be shocked by the sheer vindictiveness and extremity of some social media opinion expressed these last few weeks. “Let’s ignore due process and make our own mind up anyway based on snippets we’ve read on the internet and in social media.” It’s the mentality of the mob. What makes this such a minefield is that most of these utterances are obviously well intended and heartfelt. They come from a good place. But misplaced and uninformed opinion can still be sinister even if meant well. Moral certainty and polemical views can be extremely dangerous entities when borne out of ignorance and denial of basic facts.

It’s almost like we’re seeing a confrontation of old and new values. The modern world thinks everything can be solved through the prism of social media and soundbites. Even the most substantial topics are glibly reduced to memes and status updates these days. Wars, elections, corruptions and scandals: social media has you covered. Who cares if the facts haven’t been checked? Interested in activism and social change? Don’t join a political party or pressure group. Sign an online petition. Why worry if the petitioner has failed to do his or her research?

So much of this stuff is undeniably positive. Social media is a wonderful innovation and has done much to empower our generation and give it a voice. It’s quite remarkable how social media outlets cut through formality and bureaucracy to give a voice to the formerly powerless and disenfranchised. What other medium would give an unfettered platform to idiots like me?!

But with great power comes great responsibility. We must resist the excesses and lust of the mob. This isn’t Salem. Nor is the Jackson-Olding trial a reality tv show. Law can’t be reduced to memes or tweets. Even in the modern world, some matters are too substantial and important for status updates. We’re dealing with real lives, real people and their livelihoods. And perhaps the most precious thing of all: their reputation. There’s a reason why those antiquated institutions mentioned above have survived the test of time. And why they will remain long after Facebook and Twitter have been relegated to footnotes in history. We tamper with these values and standards at our peril.

# I believe in justice!

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

A Shot at Greatness

It couldn’t be scripted better. Not even if Steven Spielberg had conceived it. With the Six Nations Championship securely in the bag, Joe Schmidt’s men now have a chance to land the biggest prize of all: the holy of holies, the elusive and much coveted Grand Slam. That the chance comes on St Patrick’s Day at Twickenham adds an ultimate layer of sweetness to an already appetising dish. It truly doesn’t get any bigger than this. History beckons for relentless Ireland.

It’s almost as if we’re rapacious. In the ordinary scheme of things, the Six Nations trophy does very nicely thank you. Ireland’s championship win is certainly no mean achievement and Joe Schmidt’s squad is rightly proud of its progress to date. But there’s room for more. We know that. The players know that. The moment is nigh. Saturday March 17, 2018 is the time to deliver. During this unusual championship campaign it’s felt like the men in green have been playing within themselves; that although Irish performances have been remorselessly functional, there’s another gear still to be found. Another level.

Chances like this don’t come around too often. It’s nine years since an Irish team last attempted this feat and it seems a veritable lifetime. Not just the game, but the world itself has changed utterly in the intervening years. At the time, we hoped it would be the start of something special; that days like this would become a regular occurrence. What we were, in fact, witnessing was the end of a golden generation but not before it had permanently cemented its place in rugby folklore. You see, that’s the uncomfortable truth. Grand Slam chances are seldom. As rare as hen’s teeth. There’s a reason we’ve only won two in our long history.

Therefore, the moment must be seized. But how mammoth a task. Ireland’s mission isn’t just challenging, it’s onerous and monumentally troublesome. Yes, Ireland have comfortably been the best team in the 2018 Six Nations by a country mile and, although still searching for peak form, Schmidt’s side has played the best rugby so far. The table doesn’t lie, after all. While form and performance undoubtedly favour the Irish, Twickenham is a venue like no other. Ireland’s London record has often made for grim reading but recent events underpin the enormity of the task. Eddie Jones’s boys haven’t lost at English rugby HQ since 2015. As fortresses go, that’s pretty impregnable credentials.

And yet Ireland provide much hope. The Green Machine has been relentless and clinical this year and has battered every opponent into seemingly inevitable submission. Jacob Stockdale is a revelation on the wing and scores tries with the careless abandon of a kid playing footy in the back garden. However, the 2018 vintage has class all over the park. Keith Earls is reborn on the other wing, James Ryan a revelation and Bundee Aki looks to the manor born in the centre. In the final analysis, the class of 2018 may lack the overall quality of their 2009 equivalents, but in terms of work ethic, battle hardness and composure, Schmidt’s charges look superior.

It barely needs reiteration, but if Ireland prevail, they will have Johnny Sexton to thank above all. Sexton is the real deal: Ireland’s best player, most valuable commodity and the man opponents fear most. In the inexorable Irish march to glory, it’s easy to forget they wouldn’t have got anywhere near this finale without the Irish fly-half’s Parisian masterclass.

A Grand Slam victory would be the ultimate vindication and fitting reward for one of Ireland’s greatest ever footballers. ’09’s Slam provided a deserved and tangible accolade for Ireland’s best ever player; ensuring a peerless career wouldn’t be tarnished by the ugly spectre of underachievement. Make no mistake, Sexton is as important now as O’Driscoll was then. If anyone can drag us over the line through sheer force of will, it’s definitely Sexton.

Saturday is a massive occasion. It’s sure to be tense, dramatic, breathtaking and spellbinding. The ambitious Irish taking on a chastened and smarting England in their own back yard; with the cherished Slam on the line. This is massive. As big as it gets. Do or die. There’s something magical about St Patrick’s week. No doubt, this time of year evokes something inside Irish people. Look at the invading hordes that descend on Cheltenham every year chasing their own pot of gold.

But it will take more than magic to upset a provoked and wounded England on home turf. Jones’s men may be vulnerable but still hold so much in their favour. For all that, potential Irish Slams don’t come around often and Schmidt’s boys must make hay while the sun shines. They’ll have to do it the hard way but that’s the way it goes sometimes. This is Ireland’s shot at greatness. The visitors by a whisker!

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

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The Acid Test

In rugby terms, there are few contests to get the juices flowing quite like a tussle with Warren Gatland’s Wales. We know that Wales’s irascible coach loves to beat the Irish, that he values nothing more than wiping the smirk off contented Hibernian faces. No matter about gaining the upper hand over historical foe, England, Wales’s favourite Kiwi apparently prides putting the uppity Irish in their place above all else.

There’s history here you see, a bit of previous. Gatland, it seems, has never got over his 2001 deposition, when as an Irish head coach who’d just overseen a sterling campaign that saw his side defeat both England and France in a championship campaign for the first time in aeons, Ireland’s main man was abruptly sacked and replaced by his ambitious assistant, Eddie O’Sullivan. Whatever about the rights and wrongs of that dismissal (Gatland has certainly gone on to have a wondrous coaching career post Ireland), the future Welsh supremo’s unfortunate demise left a sour taste for his many admirers within and without these shores.

That’s before we even get to the Grand Slam game in 2009 and Gatland’s dropping of you know who for the final Lions Test in 2013. Sean O’Brien’s recent incendiary comments add another layer of intrigue to an already fascinating encounter. Given the palpable history and baggage attributable to Ireland-Wales matches, therefore, Irish fans are approaching Saturday’s fixture with a weary mixture of excitement and apprehension. You see, Gatland’s recent record against his former paymasters is bloody good and his Wales team always rolls into town supremely well prepared.

And Ireland, despite nominal favouritism with the bookies, are vulnerable to upset this time. As well as the aforementioned O’Brien, the hosts are without Robbie Henshaw, Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson for the seminal game of the tournament thus far. Chris Farrell will ably deputise for the magnificent Henshaw but Furlong’s replacement, Andrew Porter-despite considerable promise-looks as green as the Incredible Hulk on the tight-head side of the Irish scrum. As certain as the day is long, the visitors will target the rookie prop with an orchestrated ferocity that’ll test every inch of the youngster’s considerable mettle. As we know, Gatland teams are rarely shy about identifying weaknesses in opposition ranks and exploiting them for all they’re worth. Welcome to Test rugby, young man!

And yet if Ireland withstand the inevitable onslaught, Joe Schmidt’s men possess the class and experience to shade a close call. As Ireland’s wily head honcho reminded the press corps a couple of weeks ago, he’s yet to taste championship defeat in the Aviva as Ireland coach. It’ll take a mammoth performance to shatter that proud record. As ever, much rests on the health and well-being of Ireland’s imperious half-backs.

If Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray dodge Gatland’s bullets and stay on the field, Schmidt’s chief play makers have the intelligence and composure to steer the green ship home. If either gets lost in action, though, it’s good night Irene. For Wales undoubtedly have the class, game-plan and firepower to inflict serious damage on Schmidt’s team. This is make or break. Lose on Saturday and precious momentum is lost. However, if Ireland vanquish a familiar enemy, the boys in green are another step closer to silverware. Forget the preamble, this is the acid test.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey;

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Slick Ireland ready to roll

It’s that time of year again. You know the time I mean: when beer gardens are filled to capacity and every armchair rugby fan this side of the equator becomes experts in elite sports performance. Yes, it can only be the annual extravaganza that is the Six Nations Championship. Excitement, tension and apprehension filling the spring air in equal measure.

For Ireland, the 2018 tournament provides an opportunity to capitalise on autumn success and lay down a marker for the rest of the rugby world to notice. Entering, as we are, the end of the median stage of the World Cup cycle, this is a particularly pivotal point in the development of Joe Schmidt’s ambitious side. As satisfying at it is to challenge glamorous rivals from the southern hemisphere, the Six Nations is-and will always be-the bread and butter for tier one European nations. And the fans love this grand old tournament above all else, of course.

And, increasingly, the Six Nations is where it’s at. The peerless All Blacks apart, the best sides in the world hail from Europe these days. With the grim malaise currently afflicting Australian and South African rugby, European nations provide the best hope of upsetting New Zealand in 2019.

Eddie Jones’s England, for example, have been on a truly inspiring run for the last couple of years; their only defeat coming against Ireland in the finale of the 2017 tournament. Jones’s juggernaut is as relentless as it is powerful. Schmidt’s Ireland aren’t too far behind, though, and we all know the capabilities of Warren Gatland’s Wales. That’s before we even mention the awesome renaissance happening in Scotland and the credible job Conor O’Shea is doing in Italy.

European rugby, then, is in as strong as a position as it’s been in several blue moons. Ireland, for their part, seem in rude health. Injuries (touching a large piece of wood here!) have been relatively kind to date. The only notable absentees are Sean O’Brien and Garry Ringrose and both hope to be involved before the tournament concludes.

Even long term injuries to Jamie Heaslip and Jared Payne are mitigated by the fact that they play in positions where Ireland enjoy comparative strength. As ever, all eyes will be on the indispensable Johnny Sexton. Ireland’s brilliant fly-half really is integral to everything his side does. If Sexton stays fit, Ireland have an excellent chance of accruing silverware. If Leinster’s talisman goes down, on the other hand, all bets are off. It really is as simple as that.

The fixture list, moreover, has fallen quite kindly. If the opening game away to France can be safely negotiated, three home fixtures beckon against our Celtic cousins and Italy; all leading to a mouth watering final day showdown against England in Twickenham.

First thing’s first, though. The always enigmatic French come into the Six Nations in a state of slight disarray, having dispensed with coach, Guy Noves and replaced him with former Italy boss, Jacques Brunel. Sweeping personnel changes, illness and an inexperienced coaching team for the home side all points towards an Irish victory in the opening fixture.

But we know that logic counts for little when playing the French. With Ireland’s appalling Parisian record to consider (Google it if you want to upset yourself), Irish fans never feel too optimistic approaching an away day in Paris. That said, this is a good time to run into the unsettled French. And given how poorly Schmidt’s men started the Six Nations last season, the Irish coach will undoubtedly prime his side to get out of the blocks sprinting. The Six Nations is, after all, about momentum and a good start will do wonders for Irish prospects. Win well against France and slick Ireland have the tools to build championship glory.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

You can also follow the InsideIreland.ie rugby podcast on Soundcloud.