Ireland have a tough task in this year’s RBS Six Nations as they attempt to defend their title – can they match last year’s standards? Or will the moniker of favourites be too much to bear?
Ireland went through 2009 unbeaten and will be looking to carry on the momentum of the Grand Slam, and their most recent victory over the Springboks into this year’s competition. The nurturing of the IRFU has led to relatively few injury omissions for Declan Kidney, with the only major absentee being Lions winger Luke Fitzgerald.
Ireland’s attacking flair of late has started in the backs. The outstanding form of players such as full-back Rob Kearney, Brian O’Driscoll and Tommy Bowe has enabled Ireland to produce some scintillating tries over the past year. Add into the equation the recently emerged talent of Jonathan Sexton as the heir apparent to Ronan O’Gara, and Ireland have a backline to strike fear into any international coach.
Ireland will also be looking to their young tyros in the pack to help drive past the gain line, with players like Jamie Heaslip and Stephen Ferris establishing themselves as world class players in their position – and with the encouraging displays in the Autumn internationals of Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien, and not to mention Ireland A’s success in the Churchill Cup, Ireland have started to develop a very good squad.
Ireland will be targeted as only the top dogs can be. Every team will be looking to lay a marker down against Ireland, and with each team displaying their strengths at some point in the Autumn, this year could be a Six Nations where truly any team can cause an upset.
Ireland’s scrum has been mentioned as a key weakness. A lack of strength in depth at prop has led to Marcus Horan and John Hayes accruing a very high number of caps. As a result of this lack of rotation, Ireland’s next wave of props coming through are having to learn the hard way in the scrum – an example being the tough time that Cian Healy was having in the scrum against Australia in the Autumn. With Wales and France starting to hit their stride in the scrum, Ireland will be looking to gain parity at least.
Coaches perspective: Declan Kidney
“The provinces have all been in good form, making selection even more difficult, but we will need that for the big challenges that are ahead for the group over the next couple of weeks”
Key player: Brian O’Driscoll
The Irish captain filled his trophy cabinet after last year’s competition, with the Grand Slam, Triple Crown, and Player of the Tournament, and top try scorer. One of the Northern Hemisphere’s undisputed world class players, the Irish backline fires when he is on form, and O’Driscoll is very much on form at the moment. With only a handful of caps needed to bring up the ton for Ireland, O’Driscoll will be looking to kick-on from last season and prove that Ireland can be a force to be reckoned with come 2011.
One to watch: Jonathan Sexton
Leinster’s success has been the bedrock of Ireland’s flair in the backline over the past season, and the performance of Sexton against South Africa ahead of O’Gara has highlighted that the number 10 jersey is no longer a foregone conclusion in Ireland.
Stadium: Croke Park, Dublin
The fourth largest stadium in Europe creates a cauldron of intensity which Ireland have used to good effect over the past season. However, with games away to England and France, the only big game in Croke Park will be the Wales encounter. This year’s Six Nations could be decided by home advantage, and so Ireland’s trip to Paris may well determine Ireland’s fate.
Ireland’s Six Nations Fixtures:
Sat 6 Feb v Italy, Croke Park, Dublin
Sat 13 Feb v France, Stade de France, Paris
Sat 27 Feb v England, Twickenham, London
Sat 13 Mar v Wales, Croke Park, Dublin
Sat 20 Mar v Scotland, Croke Park, Dublin
Last season: 1st
By John White