Never before, at least not in recent memory, has a defending champion entered a Six Nations with such doom and gloom and overall pessimism surrounding their chances of glory.
After the retirement of Paul O’Connell, injuries to Sean O’Brien and Rob Kearney, the domestic form of Jonathan Sexton and Jamie Heaslip and, for the first time in two years, doubts over Joe Schmidt’s coaching following the chastening World Cup defeat to Argentina, the consensus was that winning a third championship was a tall order and, should they succeed, it would represent the finest of their triumphs under Schmidt’s stewardship.
But Sunday’s bruising 16-16 draw against Wales instilled some much-needed optimism for Schmidt’s men, and the nation as a whole, and they travel to Stade de France lookinga fresher and more organised side.
The major positive emanating from the post-mortem of the match at the Aviva Stadium was how Ireland managed a ferocious Wales pack – arguably the best in the tournament – in the final 20 minutes.
In addition, the return to form of playmaker Sexton and No8 Heaslip, two talented individuals whose influence and experience is vital to Ireland’s hopes each time they step onto the field.
Heaslip ensured Wales never gained a foothold in the contest, and every one of his 16 tackles counted. The physicality has come at a cost and injuries to Simon Zebo and Keith Earls allowing Rob and Dave Kearney’s return to the starting line-up, with O’Brien promoted to the team in place of Tommy O’Donnell.
This means Ireland retain 10 of the starting team from the World Cup pool clash against France in Cardiff, with Les Bleus only keeping three. It’s a marked difference that could go a long way in deciding a key contest in the overall context of the championship.
O’Brien and Rob Kearney’s presence provides Joe Schmidt’s side with class, experience and pace.
Their leadership will be crucial in terms of game management and maintaining composure, especially if the match is tight.
O’Brien, in particular, is a totemic presence and his voracious strength and power will sway proceedings at the breakdown.
France, on the other hand, are yet to demonstrate the spark and guile many expected under Guy Noves’ tutelage. This is a harsh statement considering his reign is only one game old but the French looked nervy in Paris in a game where the onus was for them to go out and impress the new coach against the tournament’s worst side.
Among Noves’ six changes from that game, Teddy Thomas’ addition has raised many eyebrows with the Racing Metro starlet failing to highlight any of his much-heralded class in recent weeks in the Top 14. If he fails to flicker, much of the dependability will fall on the shoulders of Fijian-born Virimi Vakatawa, who if supplied with enough quality ball, could be a threat.
The Stade de France is no longer a place where Ireland are intimidated by their rivals; a run of seven games without a win was ended by 2014’s 22-20 scoreline which sealed the Men in Green the Six Nations that year.
With big names back to help steady the ship, Schmidt’s side are starting to mould together nicely with belief that a third championship is still within their grasp.
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