By Phil Rice
Irish rugby has just about recovered from the disappointments of the 2019 season. Ireland supporters had such high expectations following a stellar Grand Slam year in 2018.
The year of 2019 promised so much but things turned sour in the very first match of that year’s Six Nations.
The Aviva crowd was stunned as they viewed with disbelief, England completely outplay Ireland and undermine the growing hope that Joe Schmidt’s team might finally reach a World Cup semi-final, at least.
The 32-20 English victory flattered Ireland, as they were second best in almost every phase of that game.
That year’s Six Nations didn’t get much better for Ireland and culminated in a disastrous display in Cardiff where Wales won comfortably by 25-7.
The warm-up games prior to the World Cup included a trouncing at Twickenham, as England ran out 57-15 victors.
In the space of seven months Irish supporters’ emotions went from high expectations to despair.
Worse was to follow in Japan as the host nation out-played and defeated Ireland by 19-12.
The whole nightmare experience was completed by a 46-14 defeat by New Zealand in the quarter-finals of that year’s World Cup.
So, it is understandable that Irish rugby fans have more than a little apprehension as they approach 2023.
If anything, 2022 was an even better year for Ireland than 2018, with a series victory in New Zealand the highlight.
But on this occasion, there does seem to be more of a grounded objectivity about the management of the team.
At the media launch for the Six Nations, Ireland captain Johnny Sexton made an interesting observation, when he said “to prove we can do something in the World Cup, we need to do something in the Six Nations”.
In 2019 there was a feeling that the whole year revolved around the World Cup in the minds of the Irish management and players.
They seemed to diminish the importance of having a successful Six Nations, which could have boosted their confidence as they built towards Japan.
The current team appear to be more realistic and more aware of their strengths and weaknesses than four years ago. Perhaps this greater objectivity is a result of their 2019 experiences.
Whatever the reason there seems to be a greater awareness of the importance of the upcoming Six Nations, and the need to remain focused on that and not get ahead of themselves.
There are areas of concern surrounding the prospects for this Irish team as they prepare for a very significant year.
The scrum and defensive maul have looked anything but secure in the past year, although when head coach Andy Farrell has his first-choice front-row available this facet is less worrying.
However, that in itself is a concern. If Andrew Porter and/or Tadhg Furlong are unavailable, the supporting cast are considerably less impressive.
Finlay Bealham’s scrummaging has certainly improved during the past 12 months, and the old warhorse Cian Healy has shown he can still operate at international level.
But there is still a significant fall-off in quality when either of the first-choice props are unavailable.
The Irish alternatives in the second-row are more lightweight than their Six Nations rivals.
James Ryan and Tadhg Beirne are both under 18 stone, which is comparatively light for a modern Test lock.
Iain Henderson weighs in closer to 20 stone and for that reason he may start in the second row, fitness permitting. Beirne has many other attributes which could be utilised at blindside flanker.
Wales are likely to target the Irish scrum and Farrell will want to guarantee good ball on the Irish put-in.
The continued health of key players such as Sexton, Garry Ringrose, Hugo Keenan, Caelan Doris and Josh van der Flier is vital to the success of the team.
Apparently, the name Caelan means ‘eternal warrior’ and how appropriate that is. Doris has been a revelation during the past year, both for Leinster and Ireland.
His skill level and ability to read the game are outstanding assets, and without wanting to tempt fate, he appears to be very durable and brings a vital element of physicality that is much needed.
Ireland appear to have developed a style of play that includes exceptional levels of mobility and dexterity. Props and second-rows are as comfortable with the ball in hand as most backs.
During recent games against New Zealand, South Africa and England, these attributes have more than compensated for the team’s weaknesses in the tight.
Whether they can continue to do so remains to be seen.
The other leading nations are going to find ways to counter the attacking threat of Ireland and reinforce their assault on their perceived weaknesses in the scrum and defensive maul.
However, Farrell, Paul O’Connell and their fellow coaches have so far found ways to withstand the counter threats that have been thrown at them.
It will be fascinating to see how France and England, in particular, go about trying to neutralise Ireland’s strengths and expose their weaknesses, during the forthcoming Six Nations.
Next Saturday sees Ireland face Wales in Cardiff in their opening game of this year’s tournament.
In recent years Wales have performed poorly in the Autumn Series and people have written them off on that basis, only for them to come storming back in the New Year, including winning the Championship in 2019 and 2021.
Their build-up to this year’s Six Nations has been even more chaotic than usual, though.
Following defeat by Italy in the final home game of last year’s Six Nations they lost to Georgia in the Autumn.
These disasters resulted in the sacking of head coach Wayne Pivac and the reinstatement of previous supermo Warren Gatland.
There are clearly major issues surrounding the organisation and form of the four Welsh regions in recent years, but they have been able to paper over these cracks at national level with the quality of several talented players, who have allowed them to still perform at a high standard.
But some of these exceptional players are growing a bit long in the tooth at this stage and stalwarts such as Alan Wyn Jones, Dan Biggar, Justin Tipuric, Toby Falatau and captain Ken Owens are not as consistently performing as previously.
However, it would be foolish to underestimate their abilities as they are all still capable of raising their standards when required.
There is a belief that the return of their ‘Messiah’ (Gatland) will provide the impetus required to get their team playing well again.
Gatland seems to take particular delight in upsetting Ireland teams and he has exposed frailties in quality Irish sides in the past.
He claims that regular trouncings of the Welsh regions by Irish provinces helps to galvanise the national team to get revenge.
Cardiff has been a graveyard for Ireland teams on a regular basis in the recent past and Farrell would be well advised to take nothing for granted, which I am sure he doesn’t need telling.
Sexton and Furlong are both expected to have recovered from recent injuries and Ireland should be close to full strength on Saturday.
Defeat in their opening game would be disastrous for Ireland and bring back memories of 2019.
With the feel-good factor of Gatland returning and the traditional fanatical support at the Principality, the game is likely to be fiercely contested.
If the Ireland scrum withstands the pressure of the Welsh pack, the pace and ferocity of the Irish attack should just about prevail.