Six Nations 2018: Ireland can set up a Paddy’s Day party
Joe Schmidt’s side are in red hot form and look like a serious challenge for England
Bundee Aki is one of the Ireland players who could make his Six Nations debut. Photo: Getty Images
You Bet: Winner 17/10, Grand Slam 7/2.
Last Year: Second.
The prospects are looking good. Dripping with strength-in-depth and with many key players in excellent form at provincial level it’s no wonder the bookies are tipping this Six Nations to be a two-horse race between Ireland and England. A successful November Test series – albeit not against the highest quality of opposition in Fiji, a jaded Argentina and a poor South Africa team – gave Joe Schmidt an opportunity to blood plenty of young players who have proven that they have what it takes with the only remaining question being whether or not they can do it against real top-level opposition.
Last year’s disappointment of losing in Murrayfield was remedied somewhat by beating England in the final game to deny Eddie Jones’ side a Grand Slam but realistically this Ireland team should be – and will be – aiming higher than just scuppering the success of the opposition.
Fitness has also been relatively kind to Ireland (so far) with Sean O’Brien and Garry Ringrose the only main players missing from the opening games but they are expected to feature later in the tournament. Joey Carbery expects to be back to full fitness for the clash with France in paris on february 3rd after breaking his arm against Fiji in November.
An opener against France in Paris is probably not what Joe Schmidt would have wanted ideally, particularly given the fact that it’s difficult to know what sort of French side they will face with Les Bleus currently embroiled in off-pitch controversy after the sacking of Guy Novès. However, all going well the whole tournament could come down to a final game showdown with England at Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day. There’s probably a storyline or two in that. RC
The Coach: The man of many faces, Joe Schmidt’s overriding need to control the controllables is what makes Ireland such a devilishly tough team to beat. As the delayed bus to Murrayfield showed last year, such tense attention to detail can become a flaw.
The Captain: Rory Best is not far off the form of his life and aged 35 is closing in on achieving more than any Irish leader before him - beating the All Blacks and winning this tournament.
One to Watch: James Ryan should climb into the starting XV as the tournament hurtles towards Twickenham. If Ryan’s body buckles under the enormous strain, Dan Leavy will leave this season as Ireland’s newest world class performer.
Fixtures: France v Ireland (Saturday, February 3rd - kick off: 4.45pm), Ireland v Italy (Saturday, February 10th - kick off: 2.15pm), Ireland v Wales (Saturday, February 23rd - kick off: 2.15pm), Ireland v Scotland (Saturday, March 10th - kick off: 2.15pm), England v Ireland (Saturday, March 17th - kick off: 2.45pm).
Prediction: France in Paris no longer carries the old fears and with three home games until Twickenham on St Patrick’s day it’s all set up for the Grand Slam.