After an inconsistent 2020, will Andy Farrell’s Ireland be able to challenge Six Nations favourites France and England in 2021?
Three years on from a Grand Slam success, off the back of two inconsistent Six Nations campaigns and a little over a year on from yet another Rugby World Cup quarter-final exit, can Ireland return to title challengers in the post-Joe Schmidt era?
Here’s everything you need to know ahead of Ireland’s opening clash with Wales in Cardiff…
𝗙𝗼𝗰𝘂𝘀𝗲𝗱. 𝗕𝘂𝗶𝗹𝗱𝗶𝗻𝗴. 𝗘𝘃𝗲𝗿𝘆𝗼𝗻𝗲 𝗜𝗻. 👊🟢
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) February 1, 2021
Domestically, Ireland’s four provinces have each made very strong starts to the season.
Indeed, within the PRO14, Leinster (10 wins, one loss), Ulster (10 wins, one loss), Munster (nine wins, two losses) and Connacht (five wins, five losses) hold the top two positions in Conference A and Conference B, with three of the four sides dominant in the league so far.
In the Champions Cup, though Ulster and Connacht have struggled to earn the victories their performances may well have warranted, Leinster and Munster are two wins from two, with the latter having posted one of the best performances of their European history, coming from 28-9 behind to beat Clermont 39-31 away at the Stade Marcel Michelin.
Another big positive in Irish rugby at the moment is the amount of promising young players that are coming through.
Ryan Baird, Ronan Kelleher and Hugo Keenan at Leinster, Munster’s Gavin Coombes, Craig Casey, Fineen Wycherley and Shane Daly and Ulster’s Ethan McIlroy, Michael Lowry and James Hume have all come in to play major parts in some of the most important games of the club season to date.
The major negative in Irish rugby at present is the notion that Ireland will not be able to compete with Eddie Jones’ England, such is their recent record against them.
Indeed, since Ireland clinched the 2018 Six Nations Grand Slam against England at Twickenham, four fixtures between the pair have brought four resounding England victories, with physical dominance overwhelming in each clash.
Three of those four games have come at Twickenham, but the 2019 Six Nations clash in Dublin – one of England’s finest ever performances under Jones – seems to have begun a trend.
Since that game, a 2019 Rugby World Cup warm-up Test at Twickenham, the 2020 Six Nations clash at Twickenham and, most recently, an Autumn Nations Cup clash at Twickenham has seen England win routinely.
Ireland host England in Dublin this year, in Round 5 no less, but will head into that game under huge pressure to buck the trend and prove that they can take on sides who exert massive physicality.
Ireland, despite three wins from four, also emerged from the Autumn Nations Cup with some criticism, having laboured to victory over minnows Georgia, and struggled to capture the imagination with their style of play.
At present, most expect Ireland won’t pose a threat to either France or England, but with both of those nations to visit Dublin, could Andy Farrell’s men challenge that narrative?
The injury to Leinster back-row Caelan Doris after the squad was announced was also a major blow for Farrell, with the 22-year-old one of Ireland’s most impressive performers in the autumn.
Since the 2020 Six Nations – which only ended in October – four players have made their Test debuts for Ireland.
The most high-profile of these has undoubtedly been Leinster wing James Lowe. A star at club level over the last three seasons, he was brilliant on his debut against Wales but then struggled against England at Twickenham.
Others to make their debuts have been Ulster 10 Billy Burns and prop Eric O’Sullivan, as well as Munster back Shane Daly.
A further four Leinster players (back Hugo Keenan, flanker Will Connors, prop Ed Byrne, scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park) made their Test debuts in October against Italy in the rearranged Six Nations Test.
Within the 2021 Six Nations squad, two uncapped players have been called up in Munster scrum-half Casey and Ulster tighthead prop Tom O’Toole. Other headlines are the injury-enforced absence of Ulster’s Jacob Stockdale, and the inclusion of injured pair Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson.
The late injury withdrawals of Doris (concussion symptoms) and Connacht lock Quinn Roux (neck) also saw uncapped pair Coombes and Baird receive belated call-ups.
👋 Welcome to camp, lads! 🟢
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) February 2, 2021
On the coaching staff, Ireland and Munster legend Paul O’Connell has joined the coaching ticket ahead of the Six Nations, and will look to have an immediate impact.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) February 2, 2021
James Ryan: So often the shining light in recent campaigns, Leinster and Ireland’s second row totem has struggled for form.
It’s not that Ryan is playing particularly poorly, but his influence on games – at both Test and club level – has diminished hugely over the last year or so.
The lock has gone from a player who stood out game-on-game in terms of carries, tackles and leadership, to one who has perhaps been told to focus more on the tight. Whatever the case, he currently is not the same James Ryan.
As such, he is perhaps the key player within this Ireland squad. If he can wrestle back some form and influence at Test level, those around him will be likely to respond in kind.
His display in Leinster’s recent derby victory over Munster was far more like it, and will have filled Farrell, O’Connell and co with excitement.
📊 𝗧𝗿𝘆 𝗧𝗶𝗺𝗲! 🟢
No side scored more tries than Ireland during the 2020 #GuinnessSixNations, as Andy Farrell's men crossed 17 times in our five games 💪#ShoulderToShoulder #IrishRugby #WALvIRE pic.twitter.com/Up7BXJGBq7
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) February 3, 2021
Six Nations since 2000: Four-time winners (2009, 2014, 2015, 2018)
Overall: 14 titles outright (1894, 1896, 1899, 1935, 1948, 1949, 1951, 1974, 1982, 1985, 2009, 2014, 2015, 2018)
Forwards (19): Ryan Baird, Tadhg Beirne, Gavin Coombes, Will Connors, Ultan Dillane, Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy, Dave Heffernan, Iain Henderson, Rob Herring, Ronan Kelleher, Dave Kilcoyne, Peter O’Mahony, Tom O’Toole, Andrew Porter, Rhys Ruddock, James Ryan, CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier.
Backs (17): Bundee Aki, Billy Burns, Ross Byrne, Craig Casey, Andrew Conway, Shane Daly, Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Jamison Gibson Park, Robbie Henshaw, Hugo Keenan, Jordan Larmour, James Lowe, Stuart McCloskey, Conor Murray, Garry Ringrose, Jonathan Sexton (c).