Home Ground: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Coach: Joe Schmidt
Paul O’Connell makes his championship return after missing last year and Ireland will be substantially better off for it. Ireland struggled without his influence in 2013, and there was a genuine fear that a troublesome back injury might prevent O’Connell playing at his peak again. We needn’t have worried. O’Connell returned, clearly intent on making up for lost time, and has played as impressively for province and country in the past few months as he has done his whole career. It’s a huge boost for Joe Schmidt and Ireland, enough to earn O’Connell the captaincy and a new deal which will keep him playing in Ireland until 2016.
The new coaching ticket fronted by Joe Schmidt and ably supported by John Plumtree (forwards) and Less Kiss (assistant) appear to have the support of the majority (for now). And needless to say the IRFU got the right man. The tactically astute Schmidt was seconds away from delivering the greatest Irish rugby victory of all time against New Zealand. But consistency will be the key to Irish success in these championships and beyond, and there’s little doubt that Schmidt, a perfectionist of the minor details, will have them ultra-prepared.
Schmidt immediately identified the depth of his squad as an initial concern ahead of the Autumn Internationals. Last year Ireland were disrupted by a string of injuries which derailed any chance of a successful campaign, and while Schmidt has talked about having a group of 30 plus players capable at test match standard, injuries to a few key personnel would still severely damage their title aspirations, especially amongst the forwards with Sean O’Brien already ruled out.
At this point in time cover for the likes of Ross, O’Connell, Heaslip, Murray, Sexton, O’Driscoll and Kearney is either untested or slightly below the required level to suggest that it wouldn’t damage Ireland’s hopes. That said, Martin Moore and Jack McGrath look like viable alternatives in the front row. In fact, Moore should really be looking to displace Ross.
Our Irish interests in Parisian rugby have never been higher with Johnny Sexton now the centre of attention playing fly-half at Racing Métro, but his form and, more significantly, his fitness will have given Joe Schmidt a few unnecessary headaches as Sexton faces up to the rigours of Top 14 rugby and what can only be described as an unhappy start to his lucrative contract, from a playing perspective at least. Sexton played 74 minutes last weekend – not ideal preparation and Schmidt might be tempted to start with Jackson or Madigan against Scotland in the opening game.
Player to Watch: Luke Fitzgerald
The Leinster winger caught the eye more than any other Irish outside back during the recent Heineken Cup rounds and the former Blackrock College student looks set take one of the wing positions with Keith Earls and Tommy Bowe currently sidelined. It’s hard to believe that Fitzgerald, who made his debut in 2006, is still only 26. More surprising still, is that he’s only crossed the whitewash twice for Ireland, a couple against Italy in the Grand Slam campaign, in his 27 internationals up to now.
Cruel injuries have prevented Fitzgerald from fulfilling his undoubted potential, but with a clean bill of health and a determination to make the most of being injury free only a cold-hearted individual could begrudge him continuing his scintillating form on the international stage. It’s worth noting that he scored a hat-trick against Northampton when Leinster dismantled the Saints at Franklin Gardens last month, so he could be worth a punt for leading try scorer.
Last season: 5th
Ireland fans probably don’t need reminding of last season but for the purpose of this blog I will jog your memory (briefly!). Starting on a positive note, a superb 40 minutes against Wales was enough to win their opening fixture in Cardiff, probably against the odds, but that was as good as it got. The rest was disappointing at best, and close to disastrous at times.
Injuries didn’t help matters but losing at home to England and away to Scotland was less than pleasing, and they missed a huge opportunity to win in Paris against a fairly average French side. But it was defeat to Italy which put the final nail in the coffin. With just one win and only five tries, Declan Kidney was never likely to survive the aftermath and it was decided that Joe Schmidt, after an interim period with Les Kiss at the helm, would be our saviour.
In an ideal world Ireland would go to Paris in the final round still with a shot at the Championship (the Grand Slam if you’re really dreaming) and Brian O’Driscoll would score the winning try in his last international…
And now back to reality.
Joe Schmidt has already spoken of the need to ‘defend the Aviva’ so three home wins would appear to be the initial target, and a decent step in the right direction, particularly as they face championship favourites Wales in the second round with only a short six-day turnaround after an opening weekend game against Scotland. Away wins against England or France, the latter of which at this stage looks slightly more achievable, would be a bonus.
By David Blair (@viscount_dave)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images