Six Nations: Injury-hit Ireland a team that knows how to win
Ireland may struggle, but under Schmidt this is an emerging team with impressive talent
Joe Schmidt is bidding to take this Irish team to an unprecedented third successive Six Nations title.
If Ireland are going to mount a serious challenge at winning for a third consecutive year Sexton will need to be firing on all cylinders.
Stuart McCloskey’s superb carrying is not down to physique alone, although being a couple of millimetres under six foot four inches and somewhere around the 17-stone mark certainly doesn’t hurt.
Coach: Joe Schmidt
Since taking over in 2013, New Zealander Schmidt has made himself into somewhat of a Six Nations specialist, leading Ireland to the title in 2014 and again last year. Despite Ireland’s disappointing showing at the World Cup he hasn’t endured any speculation about his job and it is clear that the IRFU feel he is the right man to lead the team forward. After winning two Heineken Cups, a Pro12 and a Challenge Cup in his time as Leinster coach he certainly has the CV to back up that assertion. Schmidt now has a new task on his hand to bring an emerging team with some impressive young talent on to the next level.
Ireland go into the championship looking to become the first team in history to win the title three years in a row outright. This is a team that knows how to win a Six Nations and the real strength lies in the fact that Schmidt is becoming somewhat of a specialist in doing just that. As always there will be quite a reliance on the world-class kicking ability of Johnny Sexton. As one of the shining lights of the disappointing World Cup campaign, and now that his future has been sorted out, it will be hoped that Keith Earls can demonstrate the scoring ability that made him Ireland’s leading World Cup try-scorer last October. New captain Rory Best will also be key and, if he can continue the form he showed in the World Cup and has since shown for Ulster, then Ireland will be in good hands.
Injuries look set to play a big part in Ireland’s assault on another Six Nations title with Tommy Bowe, Iain Henderson, Luke Fitzgerald and Peter O’Mahony all certain to miss the entire campaign. Mike Ross, Cian Healy and Chris Henry are expected to return mid-way through but will miss the crucial opening two games against Wales and France. Responsibility will fall on the shoulders of a number of inexperienced players such as CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier and Stuart McCloskey and it will be interesting to see how they cope.
Key man: Johnny Sexton
There is no doubting the fact that Sexton is one of the best outhalfs of his generation and should always be considered so. At times during the World Cup he showed that but, since his return to Leinster from France, he has struggled somewhat. If Ireland are going to mount a serious challenge at winning for a third consecutive year then the 30-year-old will need to be firing on all cylinders.
Schmidt’s side won a second championship following one of the most dramatic final days in the tournament’s history. After wins over Italy, France and England ignited dreams of a Grand Slam, they were brought back down to earth by a 23-16 defeat to Wales in Cardiff. However, it was a vindication of the character in the team that they came flying out of the blocks to rack up 40 points over Scotland at Murrayfield after it looked like it had slipped from their grasp.
One to watch: Stuart McCloskey
He played off a three handicap in his teens and golf was a preference for most of those formative years as opposed to rugby, a sport he adopted as an 11-year-old when entering Bangor Grammar School. A growth spurt changed his outlook. “I was quite small. I played nine (scrumhalf) in my first year of the senior rugby (cycle) and I played 10 (outhalf) pushing towards centre for the last two years of senior rugby. I went through a bit of a growth spurt. I didn’t play any underage representative stuff.” Former Ireland scrumhalf and head of Ulster’s academy Kieran Campbell was coaching in Dungannon and invited McCloskey to play his rugby there in his first year out of school; his performances nudged him into the Ulster sub academy. From there he signed his first professional contract and hasn’t looked back since, save for a four month period on the sideline with a fractured elbow and a four-game ban for a tip tackle.
He played for Emerging Ireland in the 2014 Nations Cup and now looks poised to make a breakthrough to the senior team. He’s been outstanding for Ulster all season, especially impressive in the Champions Cup.
His superb carrying is not down to physique alone, although being a couple of millimetres under six foot four inches and somewhere around the 17-stone mark certainly doesn’t hurt, but his footwork has improved as has his passing and peripheral awareness. His progress has been acknowledged by inclusion in Joe Schmidt’s extended Ireland squad initially and also being namechecked by former Lions coach Ian McGeechan.