By Rosie Foley
2019 brings a big year for Irish rugby. They are going into the Guinness Six Nations as defending Grand Slam champions with a large expectancy of delivering at the World Cup in Japan. They are arguably the best team in the world right now. With recently having won Coach, Team and Player of the year. Ireland are the team to beat.
With it being announced that Schmidt will be stepping down as head coach after the World Cup, he will want to go out on high. Since Schmidt has been Head Coach of Ireland, he has brought them three titles and many memorable wins. Ronan O’Gara believes that Schmidt has been able to do this by instilling confidence into each player, ‘he knows what world class is and he realises that he has a group of players who are world class. And then he convinces his players of that.’
Ireland continued their unbeaten form throughout the autumn internationals, the most momentous win being against New Zealand, 16-9. However, their two biggest threats in the Six Nations will come from two of the home nations. Beginning with their first game, England.
England will be looking to redeem themselves from last year’s loss, 15-24, in the home of Irish rugby, the Aviva. Ireland then travel to Murrayfield to face Scotland. After the break they face Italy in the Stadio Olimpico and then host France, with a quick turnaround finishing up in Wales which is predicted to be the deciding match. Wales are deemed to be dangerous and Ireland’s biggest challenge. They have previously met 126 times, with Wales edging the wins with 68 to Ireland’s 51.
Former Irish International, Shane Horgan spoke on Virgin Media Sport and made the statement that Ireland need to play their best in all their fixtures, otherwise it could be a tough eight weeks.
‘Ireland have to deliver good performances to beat all those teams apart from Italy.’ said Horgan.
‘England are going to be chomping at the bit and they have moved their game on over the autumn series. If Ireland don’t deliver a good performance there, they are in trouble and the same against France.’
Horgan knows that this year is going to be a physically tough campaign for Ireland. The quick turnaround from one very physical game against France to another, Wales is going to be a challenge for Schmidt’s team. Even though Ireland have a good squad depth, several players will have to power through and play on.
‘Just because we had a phenomenal year last year, doesn’t mean it will be a breeze with back-to-back Grand Slams. They aren’t done very often for a reason.’
‘We have a big portfolio of players that can slot in and out pretty easily. But the bulk of the team will be asked to back up on a couple of occasions, and it is difficult.’
Joe Schmidt’s side have the makings to go in search for their fifth Six Nations success. With having experienced players like Peter O’Mahony, Rory Best, Keith Earls and Connor Murray to lead the team, they also have youthful talent with the likes of James Ryan, Jordan Lamour and Gary Ringrose in the squad.
Although, the key player everyone will be looking out for is Johnny Sexton. Being named World Player of the Year says it all. As always, he will be the one the other teams target. There was a worry over if he would be back for the Six Nations opener as he has been struggling with a knee injury, but Leinster boss Leo Cullen is confident he will be ready.
However, young Joey Carberry has proved to be an outstanding 10 this season for Munster and is looking to be a good replacement for Sexton. However, significant ball carrier Tadgh Beirne has been ruled out of the first two rounds of the competition with a knee injury allowing Quinn Roux to get the call up.
Although it seems that Ireland have got a tough Six Nations campaign ahead of them and not the ideal team set up leading into it, they should be able to prove why they are able to retain their spot in the top three of World Rugby’s ranking.