Coach: Declan Kidney
Home ground: Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Rd, Dublin
Much criticised for his conservatism in the past, Declan Kidney blooded a host of promising Irish youngsters in the autumn and will be confident they can continue on in the same vein having trounced Argentina. Brian O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney return to the squad having been absent during that period. Likewise Rory Best and Sean O’Brien are welcomed back into the pack, giving Ireland a promising blend of experience and youth.
Ireland are developing a degree of depth in the squad, with their young talent finally given the platform to impress, which has been missing in recent years. Nonetheless the experience of O’Driscoll and company will be vital to a successful campaign.
Should injury befall either Jonathan Sexton or Mike Ross, Ireland will be in trouble. The simple fact is, Declan Kidney has no readymade replacement for either of these two. Ronan O’Gara, while vastly experienced, has been a shadow of his former self this season. The other options at fly-half, Ian Madigan, Paddy Jackson and Ian Keatley, though talented, are untried at international level.
The tight-head situation is no better. Michael Bent was controversially imported from New Zealand but has failed to live up to expectations thus far, and Declan Fitzpatrick’s continued fitness problems leave Ireland with Mike Ross as their only internationally proven tight-head.
Player to watch: Simon Zebo
Zebo has only three caps to his name but looked Ireland’s most dangerous attacking threat from fullback during the Autumn Internationals. The return of Rob Kearney will mean a probable switch to the more familiar position of wing. Zebo scored a crucial hat-trick against Racing Metro in Round 6 of the Heineken which sealed Munster’s place in the quarter-finals at the expense of provincial rivals Leinster. That’s the kind of form, and hunger for crossing the line, which could impress many during the campaign.
Last season: 3rd
Ireland got off on the wrong foot with a sluggish performance and surprise loss to Wales in their opening fixture at the Aviva. A promising draw in Paris sandwiched by expected victories over Italy and Scotland offered some hope of redemption. However, they were firmly put in their place by a rampant English pack which meant the campaign ended with a somewhat sour taste in the mouth.
Like their previous campaign, how Ireland move forward will depend largely on their opening fixture against the Welsh. A win in Cardiff would set up an intriguing game against England in Dublin, with Ireland out for revenge for the humiliation they suffered last year. Having the English and French come to Dublin always provides Ireland’s best opportunity of a championship challenge; there is the distinct possibility, however, that this young team may slip up at some point on their way.
By David Blair