Six Nations 2023: Time for fear-free Ireland to embrace favourites tag

A clean bill of health at the end of the tournament is arguably more important in a World Cup year, but Andy Farrell’s side have a shot at winning the Six Nations

Last year

Triple crown winners, but the highlight of 2022 undoubtedly came against the All Blacks thanks to a 2-1 series win, Ireland’s first successful tour of New Zealand. The Autumn Nations Series did not live up to the same standard of performance, but victories over the world champion Springboks, Fiji and an upward-trending Australia are not to be sniffed at.

Just one defeat in the calendar year, against France in Paris during the Six Nations.

Results: 6N: v Wales (h) W 29-7, v France (a) L 30-24, v Italy (h) W 57-6, V England (a) W 15-32, v Scotland (h) W 26-5. Summer tour: v New Zealand (a) L 42-19, v New Zealand (a) W 12-23, v New Zealand (a) W 22-32. Autumn Nations Series: v South Africa (h) W 19-16, v Fiji (h) W 35-17, v Australia (h) W 13-10.


Close to being at full strength, though the two major absences are significant. Two British and Irish Lions and arguably two of the best players in their position, Tadhg Furlong and Robbie Henshaw, miss out in Cardiff this weekend through injury.


Furlong’s calf issue is expected to clear up for France on February 11th, while Henshaw’s wrist injury could well see him get Leinster game time vs the Dragons on February 18th. All going well, he would be expected to link up with Ireland after.

Johnny Sexton has recovered from a cheekbone injury, but the supporting cast behind him has changed drastically. Ross Byrne’s reliable form for Leinster has been rewarded, he is now outhalf number two, while Jack Crowley is also in the squad. Joey Carbery, for so long the backup, has been asked to go away with Munster and rediscover his best form.

Perhaps most intriguingly of all, Munster tight head Roman Salanoa has been a late call-up to the Ireland set-up and will travel to Cardiff as 24th man due to Furlong’s injury. If he sees any game time, it would be a truly remarkable story given his background playing American football in Hawaii.

Ireland team vs Wales: Hugo Keenan; Mack Hansen, Garry Ringrose, Stuart McCloskey, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (captain), Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Finlay Bealham; Tadhg Beirne, James Ryan; Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris.

Replacements: Rob Herring, Cian Healy, Tom O’Toole, Iain Henderson, Jack Conan, Conor Murray, Ross Byrne, Bundee Aki.


Andy Farrell has led Ireland to similar – if not greater – heights as Joe Schmidt did in 2019. The question is will he avoid a similar fall? ‘It’ll be different this time,’ is the famous refrain, but one thing that does seem to have changed is Ireland’s greater willingness to embrace risk.

Errors do not hold the fear they once did, and that has created a side better able to adapt mid-game and problem solve to preserve victories that may have gone by the wayside in years gone by.

Key player

Johnny Sexton, right? He is as critical as ever to Ireland’s game plan, but has the reliance on him lessened slightly? After all, Ross Byrne led a Leinster attack that put 78 points on Racing across two Champions Cup games.

Depending on how Bealham goes this weekend, we’ll find out just how reliant the set-piece and forward pod play is on Furlong, but apart from Sexton, it’s hard to look past Jamison Gibson-Park as Ireland’s main man.

The tempo he brings to the attack, plus his decision-making when sniping from the base, taking quick penalties or finding space with attacking kicks, is up there with anyone else. The difference he made when coming off the bench in the South Africa’s game was notable, Ireland’s attack looking all the more incisive for his presence.


England and France travel to Dublin, so if ever there was a year to send off Sexton with one final Six Nations title, this would be it. A Grand Slam seems unlikely for any side, but as long as Ireland don’t get ambushed by Warren Gatland and Wales this year, they will be well placed heading into the France game with momentum on their side.

A clean bill of health at the end of the tournament is arguably more important in a World Cup year, but at the same time, Ireland don’t often come into a tournament as favourites. In 2019, it didn’t go so well. Four years on, it’s time to embrace the favourites tag and put in the performances that live up to it.

Schedule: v Wales (a) February 4th, 14.15; v France (h) February 11th, v Italy (a) February 25th, 14.15; v Scotland (a) March 12th 15.00; v England (h) March 18th, 17.00.

Nathan Johns

Nathan Johns

Nathan Johns is an Irish Times journalist