Weight of expectation hangs heavy on Ireland

Ireland's six nations expectations
24 January 2018; Six nations team captains from left, Alun Wyn Jones, Wales, Guilhem Guirado, France, Dylan Hartley, England, along with Rory Best, Ireland, John Barclay, Scotland and Sergio Paresse, Italy at the Natwest Six Nations 2018 launch at Syon Park in London, England. Photo by Ian Walton/Sportsfile

Phil Rice examines whether Ireland can deal with the pressure of being favourites for this year’s Six Nations

This weekend sees the first round of the 2018 Six Nations Tournament. For the next seven weeks rugby supporters throughout the Home Nations, France and Italy will be gripped by the excitement that this annual jamboree always generates.

Tickets are fetching crazy prices on the ticket websites, while fans select their fantasy teams and rugby talk is all about the selection of their country’s team and whether they can win this year’s Championship.

It is a unique competition that engenders enthusiasm from some folk who have little or no interest in rugby for the remainder of the year. Football have tried to generate the same support for a Home Nations championship but have failed miserably.

The Southern Hemisphere look on enviously as they try to emulate the format, but have so far failed to develop the same level of support.

It is an event that the Rugby Unions of the six nations have protected assiduously, and have been reluctant to alter in any way.

There have been calls for two divisions to be established, incorporating Georgia and Romania, with promotion and relegation.

There has been support for a change in the timing of the event, but the authorities realising the popularity of the existing format, are reluctant to entertain any change.

Ireland's six nations expectations
24 January 2018; Guilhem Guirado French Captain, left, along with Rory Best Ireland Captain at the Natwest Six Nations 2018 launch at Syon Park in London, England. Photo by Ian Walton/Sportsfile

So as excitement reaches fever pitch for this year’s event, the talk is all about whether Ireland can beat England on St. Patrick’s Day to clinch the title.

But seasoned supporters are more circumspect, with the knowledge of history where so many favourites have stumbled in the past.

On the basis of recent results Ireland and England are certainly justifiable favourites, but all the other teams, with the possible exception of Italy, can make a plausible case for their coun try to succeed.

Ireland have never borne the tag of favouritism with comfort. Historically they are more associated with upsetting the odds in pulling off unlikely wins as underdogs.

But under the astute leadership of Joe Schmidt they are justifiably at the top table of world rugby and no nation takes them on with any degree of confidence.

They are currently riding on the crest of a seven-win sequence, including victories over England, South Africa and Argentina. They contributed six players to the Lions Test team in last year’s drawn series with New Zealand.

The envy of

The Irish provinces have performed superbly in the two European competitions this season. The academies of Leinster and Munster, in particular, are the envy of almost every rugby playing nation.

There is an unprecedented strength in depth in the quality of players at national level. Despite all this positivity there is still a realism that there can be ‘many a slip between cup and lip.’ Ireland are still dependant on several key players maintaining their fitness throughout the tournament.

Half backs Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray are chief among these. They formed the half back partnership for the two unbeaten tests in New Zealand and their control and leadership is not only based on talent but also years of experience and success at the highest level.

There are some younger players emerging at half back, like Joey Carbery and Luke McGrath, but the experience gained at the coalface of the international game is invaluable and Sexton and Murray have that in spades. In a relatively short time Ireland have developed a front-row that is among the best in the world.

Ireland's six nations expectations
10 March 2017; Tadhg Furlong of Ireland during the RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Wales and Ireland at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, Wales. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Just five years ago nobody would believe this was possible as John Hayes, followed by Mike Ross, bore the burden of holding up the Irish scrum with a nation’s prayers for their well-being. Tight head prop is a dirty job but it is crucial to the success of the team.

In Tadhg Furlong Ireland have unearthed the widely acknowledged front runner in world rugby in this position. And with Cian Healy and Jack McGrath as supporting loose heads on the other side of the scrum, there is little fear that they can withstand all challenges.

Back row is one of the most influential areas in the modern game and Ireland have an all-Lions unit in Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and CJ Stander. Not for the first time in recent years there is some doubt over the fitness of O’Brien, but Josh van der Flier has been in outstanding form at open side flanker this season and he can prove an able deputy at least until O’Brien recovers.

Dan Leavy is pushing O’Mahony on the blindside of the scrum and it would be no surprise if he has a fair amount of game-time during the tournament.

There are some exciting players that have emerged this season who are pressing for inclusion in the team. Jacob Stockdale made a couple of impressive performances on the wing during the Autumn international series and may well start against France this week.

Jordan Larmour has been getting rave reviews recently with his electric interventions from fullback for Leinster. Rob Kearney has shown his best form for some time this season and may hold off the challenge of the exciting 20-year-old, but it would be no surprise to see him taking the field at some stage of the tournament.

England are marginal favourites for the Championship ahead of Ireland and whatever happens in between, the final game between these two on St Patrick’s Day promises to be a special event.

England are still smarting from Ireland’s victory over them last season when they were prevented from winning the Grand Slam by a deserved victory for the home team at the Aviva.

Scotland have taken great strides in their development in the past two years, including giving Ireland a bloody nose in the first game of last year’s Championship.

Ireland's six nations expectations
25 November 2017; Jacob Stockdale of Ireland during the Guinness Series International match between Ireland and Argentina at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

They have gone on to defeat Wales and Australia among others since then and Ireland will be wary of the threat they pose when they take them on in their penultimate game. Wales have traditionally under-performed in the Autumn internationals and they remained consistent to this tradition this season.

However, while they may not have the strength in depth that Ireland now possess, they still have a number of very capable players who can turn it on when they decide, as they did when beating Ireland at the Principality Stadium last season. It will be crucial that Ireland start with a win in Paris this weekend.

Not an easy task, as we have experienced over the years. French rugby is very strong at club level and while this is partly attributable to an influx of overseas stars, there is an underlying strength in the French game that could yet emerge at international level under the astute leadership of new coach Jacques Brunel.

Revenge

He had a measure of success with the Italy team in the past and is a shrewd operator. The French haven’t forgotten that Ireland beat them in a crucial World Cup match just over two years ago and they will be out for revenge.

The stage is set for what could be one of the closest Six Nations in recent times. Getting off to a winning start and avoiding injuries to key players, are just two of the requirements that will be crucial to the aspirants for this year’s Championship.

If you haven’t got your tickets for St. Patrick’s Day at Twickenham by now, you can expect to pay a hefty sum for the privilege of attending what could be a memorable climax to the tournament. Come on Ireland!


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