European success the icing on the cake for Irish hopes
Michael Mulvihill is the Racing Post’s Irish rugby correspondent
Following an unbeaten November international series, Ireland arrive at the Six Nations with three provinces qualified for the knockout stages of European cups, all with home quarter-finals, and a squad in top form.
Leinster, unbeaten in the pool stages of the Champions Cup, have been in scintillating form this season and are unbeaten since early November. That period has highlighted the depth of their squad and Jordan Larmour is the name on everyone’s lips.
Larmour, at just 20, announced himself to the wider public on December 26 with a stunning solo try against Munster and he hasn’t stopped since.
It remains to be seen where Larmour will play during the Six Nations but his display on the wing against Montpellier will have shown Joe Schmidt that he is equally adept there and Ireland are spoiled for choice when it comes to back-three options, with Keith Earls and Andrew Conway hitting form at the right time for Munster.
Earls was the star of rounds five and six for Munster in the Champions Cup, notching two tries in the process and handing another to departing teammate Simon Zebo. At 30, Earls has rarely been in better form and he looks assured of his position in the back three.
Ulster’s poor form throughout this season led to just four players making the initial squad, with John Cooney perhaps harshly left out.
Jacob Stockdale, one of the stars of the November series, has endured a tough time with Ulster over the past few weeks but should revel in his return to Irish camp.
Connacht have been in much better form, securing a home quarter-final in the Challenge Cup, with Bundee Aki the focus of their four squad members.
Following the final round of European cup games, the Ireland squad quickly departed to Spain for a pre-Six Nations warm-weather training camp – the first of Schmidt’s tenure.
That will have given the squad time to get away from the media attention at Carton House,their regular training base, and give the players the chance to refresh after a bruising final two rounds of European action.
While much of the starting 15 is relatively assured, the second-row position is one of real debate, with Iain Henderson, Devin Toner and James Ryan likely to rotate throughout the tournament. Tadgh Beirne’s omission from the squad raised further questions about Schmidt’s selection policy, given that he has committed his future to Ireland, as the Scarlets man has been devastating in recent weeks.
Beirne’s Scarlets contract means he would have to return to his club for gap weeks, limiting his time with the squad, and Schmidt has cited that as the reason for not choosing him. It’s all but certain, however, that we will be seeing Beirne in an Ireland shirt later this year.
The half-back pairing of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton has been paramount to Ireland over the past few years and Schmidt will be keen to manage Sexton as well as possible throughout this campaign.
Sexton was allowed the weekend off for Leinster’s clash with Montpellier, following injuries over Christmas. It’s crucial that Sexton is fully fit for the trip to Paris and as much of the competition as possible, with Munster’s in-form Ian Keatley providing back-up when needed.
With the World Cup just 19 months away, Irish club rugby is in a healthy state and the time has come for that to be transferred to the international stage.
Ireland won back-to-back Six Nations prior to the 2015 World Cup and, while their performance in that tournament left a lot to be desired, they will be keen to properly kick off the World Cup cycle over the next seven weeks.
A tricky schedule sees away ties in France and England to open and close the campaign, and three home wins will be crucial prior to a St Patrick’s Day clash with England at Twickenham.
Last year’s Six Nations was one to forget for Ireland. Confidence was high following November victories over Australia and New Zealand, while having France and England at home was a huge boost. In the end, however, home wins were not enough as losses to Scotland and Wales on the road left Ireland to finish second, five points adrift of England.
The opening-round loss to Scotland will have been on Schmidt’s mind for the last 12 months so expect them to start strongly in Paris.
An unbeaten summer tour and November series followed that Six Nations campaign, with the current Ireland squad looking in better shape than 12 months ago, albeit they are one of the youngest squads in years.
Sixteen of Joe Schmidt’s 36 are 25 or under so blending youth with experience will be key for this campaign. A week spent in Spain could only have aided this.
While Schmidt has consistently repeated his focus to be round one in Paris, many Ireland fans will have one thing on their mind – a St Patrick’s Day winner-takes-all battle with England – but there is a lot of rugby to be played before then.