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.
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