Six Nations countdown: Can anyone stop Ireland?
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Ireland are the reigning Six Nations Champions and would go into the 2019 championship as favourites.
They are favourites not just because they won it last year but because of their recent results against New Zealand, who are the yardstick by which all performances are judged.
The two countries have met 31 times since their first match in 1905 and statistically the All Blacks are a long, long way ahead, winning 28 times to Ireland’s twice with a draw in 1973. But of the three matches they have played in the last three years, Ireland have won twice, 40-29 in Chicago in 2016 and 16-9 in Dublin in the middle of last November.
Ireland’s Six Nations’ victories are rather like its New Zealand results. Last year they achieved the Grand Slam by beating all of the other five nations and that is just the third time they have done so. The previous occasions were in 1948 and in 2009. This time they could win their first successive titles.
But it’s not all about history. Ireland won 12 in a row before losing to Australia in Brisbane in June before going on to another 12 victories, including the two which won the series against Australia in June 2018. In that run of successes they beat England, Scotland, Wales, France, South Africa (38-3), Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Japan, Argentina and the USA.
They are now ranked second to New Zealand on World Rugby’s rankings, one place above Wales and two above England, whom they will be playing in the Six Nations. They are five places above Scotland, eight above France and 14 above Italy, whom they will also be playing. Fortunately for Ireland, they play their highest-ranked opponents, England, at home, the lower ranked teams away. But. They play Wales in Cardiff in the last match of the Six Nations. Tough one indeed.
Ireland’s Fixtures in 2019
Round One, 1 February 2019
Ireland vs England at Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Round Two, 9 February 2019
Scotland vs Ireland at Murrayfield, Edinburgh
Round Three, 23 February 2019
Italy vs Ireland at Stadio Olimpico, Rome
Round Four, 10 March 2019
Ireland vs France at Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Round Five, 16 March 2019
Wales vs Ireland at Principality Stadium, Cardiff
It may be at home, but the England match could still be a tough start – as in fact could their last match – against Wales at home. Those two matches could determine the destination of the Six Nations Cup.
The way Ireland has climbed the ladder may be a happenstance – a freakish coming together of top players in all positions, as happens occasionally – South Africa in the 1930s, Australia in the 1980s and New Zealand this century.
It may also be the work done by those no longer playing – administrators and their much-lauded coach Joe Schmidt, who is hoping to get away while people still sing songs of praise, at least before they can start swapping Hosanna for Crucify him.
Leadership counts. In 1948 when Ireland won the Grand Slam they had an inspirational captain in Dr Karl Mullen who captained the B&I Lions. In 2009, their captain was Brian O’Driscoll, regarded as the best centre in the world, capped 133 times for Ireland and a member of four B&I Lions teams. In 2018 they had Rory Best of 113 Irish caps, veteran of two B&I Lions’ tours. He, a hooker like Mullen, has a great record. Ireland have won a Grand Slam just three times, and Best played in two of them – in 2009 and again in 2018. He is 36 and playing well.
In all three of those Grand Slam victories Ireland has had an outstanding flyhalf – Jackie Kyle in 1948, Ronan O’Gara in 2009 and Jonny Sexton in 2008.
The combination of a good captain and a good general pays dividends.
But look down a possible Irish team and wonder. There are no apparent weaknesses and plenty of experience, from Best to fullback.
You see a strong front row that can play beyond the scrum, locks tall and energetic as young James Ryan develops impressively while Devin Toner, all 2,08m of him, is much more than just a great line-out forward and a tough, skilled loose trio. Even without Sean O’Brien it is a strong trio. Peter O’Mahoney is strong and fearless and good in the line-outs. CJ Stander is strong and tireless. Young Josh van der Flier, of Dutch ancestry but born in Wicklow, has impressed. It is pack to have on your side in battle.
Behind that pack is Conor Murray, quick, accurate, intuitive and brave – perhaps the best in the world. Then there is Sexton of many virtues, amongst them kicking on defence and attack and at goal. All seven of the backs defend well and Garry Ringrose is capable of busting our while the wings have pace. Keith Earl can turn half a chance into seven points and Jacob Stockdale is forceful. And it would be a good idea to have Rob Kearney behind them. He has a Gaelic footballer’s ability to catch the high kick, the vision to counterattack from deep and physical courage.
Ireland has had greater player-depth than usual and a greatly admired New Zealander in Joe Schmidt to coach them.
Discipline always counts. Those who would judge Irish disciplinary performance by Leinster’s horrid behaviour against Munster in December, would make a big mistake. In 2018, Ireland conceded 34 penalties in its five matches with just one sanctionary card – a yellow one. It was the best disciplinary record of the six countries involved.
Ireland’s 2018 Results
Ireland vs USA: won 57-14 in Dublin
Ireland vs New Zealand: won 16-9 in Dublin
Ireland vs Argentina: won 28-17 in Dublin
Ireland vs Italy 54-7 in Chicago
Ireland vs Australia: won 20-16 in Sydney
Ireland vs Australia: won 26-21 in Melbourne
Ireland vs Australia: lost 18-9 in Brisbane
Ireland vs England: won 24-15 at Twickenham
Ireland vs Scotland: won 21-8 in Dublin
Ireland vs Wales: won 37-27 in Dublin
Ireland vs Italy: won 56-19 in Dublin
Ireland vs France: won 15-13 in Paris
Prediction: Ireland for the Grand Slam again.
By Paul Dobson