By Ben Lovell-Smith
Ireland had a disastrous Rugby World Cup. Crashing out in the quarters and losing to Japan in the pool was far from the tournament that was expected from a team that had won the Grand Slam and beaten the All Blacks twice within the previous two years. There is still potential for Ireland going forward, the bulk of that successful squad still remains.
Andy Farrell has stepped up to replace Joe Schmidt as head coach. It is a big space to fill, but alongside assistant coach Mike Catt and forwards coach Simon Easterby there is a very young and enthusiastic set up for the players to embrace. Modern rugby is all about positivity, motivation and energy and these bring it in abundance.
With Irish rugby stalwarts Rory Best and Rob Kearney gone from the set up, Farrell will need a number of players to step up as leaders. Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy, Peter O’Mahony, Connor Murray, and of course new captain Johnny Sexton will lead Ireland into the immediate future.
Murray particularly needs to prove he is worthy of his place, he had a very poor World Cup by his high standards. Ulsterman John Cooney has been on red hot form all season for his province and offers more of an attacking threat.
Despite this, he was unable to break the Murray-Sexton partnership for the first fixture, only finding a place on the bench. Ireland now have fantastic depth in this position and this competition could be the spur that Murray needs. However, should he continue to falter, expect to see Cooney take the reigns.
Farrell may have opted for continuity in some positions, however he has not been afraid to take risks in others. Against Scotland, the vastly experienced British Lions captain O’Mahony was dropped to the bench in favour of 21 year old Caelan Doris.
Doris is in great form at the moment, having scored 3 tries in 13 games for Leinster this season. He is also a former Ireland U20s Captain and thought of very highly within Ireland. This is exactly the type of selection that Farrell needs to make in order to shake this Ireland team back into life.
Jordan Larmour has finally been handed the 15 jersey after a fantastic apprenticeship underneath Rob Kearney. With Gary Ringrose, James Ryan and Jacob Stockdale all still in their early twenties, there is a fantastic blend of youth and experience developing within this Ireland set up.
The Ireland lineout completely fell apart in Japan, a part of their game that they had once banked on. Devin Toner has been included in the squad once again, after being dropped for the World Cup and should be pivotal if Ireland are going to sharpen up this area. Simon Easterby has a massive task here, if he can fix the lineout then Ireland will be very competitive.
The fixtures this year are fairly favourable to Ireland, they have three home fixtures. However, they face both England and France away, which will be tough games.
England dispatched Ireland 57-15 at Twickenham in the World Cup warm up just six months ago, and will be favourites heading into this game. However, things can change quickly in rugby and both Andy Farrell and Mike Catt know Twickenham well.
Should the first two fixtures against Scotland and Wales be a success, Ireland against England could easily be a Grand Slam decider. France away will be a hostile atmosphere but Ireland have won two out of three of the last fixtures they have played there. They will arrive with confidence.
Farrell is no fool, he will make sure Ireland will take it game by game, Rome wasn’t built in a day. They are only at the beginning of the next cycle of Irish rugby. The future looks bright, they have good strength in depth, the provinces are looking healthy and they have a fantastic coaching team to lead them forwards.
It is not inconceivable that they could go on to win the tournament this year.