Ireland start their defence of the Grand Slam this weekend, against England (Saturday, February 2nd).
Ireland will be looking to retain the GS, a feat no team has managed to accomplish in the history of the 6 Nations (both England and France achieved back to back Grand Slam titles in the ’90s).
Ireland go in to the tournament as favourites, being defending champions and the second best team in the world. After having won the Grand Slam last year, they went on to achieve a series win in Australia, and another win over the All Blacks.
Retaining a Grand Slam is harder then achieving it, but Ireland go into the tournament possibly even stronger than last year, with the return of Sean O’Brien and the rise of Joey Carbery.
In the past, Ireland have often faltered under high expectation, but this Irish side seem to be made of sterner stuff. Players like James Ryan and Jacob Stockdale bring a winnner’s mentality to the team, something it has lacked in previous years.
This will also be Ireland’s last 6 Nations under Joe Scmidt as coach. That will give added motivation for the team to go all the way.
And there is of course the World Cup at the end of the year and peformance in the 6 Nations will certainly affect on the morale of each team, either way.
Ireland face England in their first game of the tournament. England ranked 5th last year, in their worst performance in recent memory. They managed to get through a tough November Series, and have some dangerous players, but Ireland should win this, especially playing at home.
Ireland will probably face a much tougher test in Murrayfield against the Scots (February 9th). Scotland have undergone a resurgence under new coach Gregor Townsend and have won 11 out of their 18 tests under his leadership.
A win against Ireland in Murrayfield would be something to savour, and something Scotland achieved in 2017. Scotland should also have had a much easier opening fixture, against Italy.
Ireland then have a 2 week break before travelling to Italy, on February 24th. Italy should never be underestimated, especially with Conor O’Shea as coach (though they are yet to win a 6 Nations’ match with him as coach (2016).
The truth, though, is that Italy aren’t approaching Ireland’s league. Ireland have only lost to Italy once in the last 20 years (2013).
Another 2 week break before Ireland host France (March 10th). France are currently suffering through some of their worst form in many years, capped off by a first-ever loss to Fiji.
Of course, it was France that Ireland faced in their opening fixture last year, and France almost won that game, before Irelad showed real grit in retaining the ball through 40 phases of play before clinching the game with a drop goal.
This is another game that is Ireland’s to lose. Ireland have had the run of France in recent years, having only lost once to the French since 2011 (2016). The other 7 games have seen 5 wins and 2 draws.
Ireland then only have 6 days to recuperate before travelling to Cardiff to face Wales (March 16th). This may well be Ireland’s toughest game of the Championship. Many pundits are talking about Wales’ being Grand Slam dark horses (ie they have a real chance of winning it).
It will be known by then if Ireland are still in the chase. It will also be Wales’ last 6 Nations under Warren Gatland and the players will certainly want to send their coach off on a high.
This fixture has been incredibly even since Ireland won it’s last Grand Slam (2009). Of the last 13 games between the sides, Ireland have won 6, Wales have won 6 and there has been 1 draw!
In conclusion, I believe that Ireland will manage to win the 6 Nations title, but lose to Scotland so fail to achieve the Grand Slam.
Robbie Henshaw/Gary Ringrose
C J Stander
That is a team that can, and has, beaten the best rugby has to offer.
What are your predicitions?