It was a fairly inglorious Rugby World Cup for Ireland. They flew past the minnows but struggled markedly against Italy and then in a brutal encounter with France.
And then there was the blow out against Argentina in the quarter-final. Coach Joe Schmidt was without captain Paul O’Connell, and lynchpin flyhalf Jonathan Sexton. The result? Argentina raced to a 17-0 lead and eventually ran out 43-20 winners. It horribly exposed Ireland’s lack of clear thinking under pressure without their key players and delivered a painful memory that Schmidt would prefer to forget but cannot.
Schmidt has since lost instrumental defence coach Les Kiss, who will be replaced after the tournament by former England backs coach Andy Farrell. Hardly like for like.
Top-class performers such as Cian Healy, Iain Henderson, Tommy Bowe, Peter O’Mahony and Luke Fitzgerald will also be unavailable this Saturday against Wales in Dublin.
It is not the best way to embark on a defence of their Six Nations title, especially when they have a six-day turnaround for the game against France in Paris.
Ireland could well be on the back foot after the first two rounds.
Schmidt is one of the best coaches in world rugby, however, and he has developed a knack of producing teams in the Six Nations that keep the opposition guessing. Ireland played with width and verve when they won the title in 2014. Last year they played with much more reliance on the high ball and were more direct.
Schmidt has a delicate balance to tread over the next few weeks, but he has made a fine appointment in Rory Best as captain. As a skipper of club side Ulster in Northern Ireland, Best’s appointment might be seen by some in a political context but in truth the hooker is the best available.
PLAYER TO WATCH — SEAN O’BRIEN
With Thierry Dusatoir now retired, Sean O’Brien has the opportunity of becoming the best openside flanker in the tournament. He is a huge ball carrier and his destructive tackling rivals that of the former French captain. It was mooted after the World Cup that O’Brien would head to France, but Leinster re-signed him in December and both region and country will relish the next four years with him.
STAR IN THE MAKING — STUART MCCLOSKEY
It was all too apparent at the World Cup that Sonny Bill Williams is the perfect template for an international centre. Step forward Ireland’s answer to the All Black behemoth, Stuart McCloskey. At just over 16st in a 6ft 4in frame, the 23-year-old Ulster centre has the power to combat Wales’s Jamie Roberts on Saturday if he is picked. He looks to have the skill set, too, and like Williams he has a devastating offload.
POINT TO PROVE — JOHNNY SEXTON
Sexton was the pre-eminent flyhalf in the northern hemisphere going in to the World Cup but injuries and indifferent form have resulted in a drop down the ladder. Sexton is as inspirational as he is highly effective at not only producing Schmidt’s gameplan to perfection but making the right calls when it all goes wrong.
PREDICTION — 3RD
Ireland have a long injury list which makes Saturday’s match with Wales in Dublin a very tricky start. Schmidt’s side must also play England and France away from home, and while neither of those teams are insurmountable, the fixture with France is just six days after Dublin. If Ireland win all three of those games, their long injury list may have abated by the time Italy and Scotland come calling at the Aviva Stadium.