Six Nations 2019 Championship in focus: Ireland
Ireland begin the defence of their Six Nations crown by hosting England on Saturday, February 2.
By Michael Cantillon
Last Updated: 30/01/19 8:54am
As defending Six Nations champions and recent victors over the All Blacks, can Joe Schmidt's Ireland potentially claim back-to-back Grand Slams for the first time in their history?
Under Schmidt, who announced last month that he will depart his role following the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Ireland have picked up three titles in five years: lifting silverware in 2014 and 2015, before clinching that elusive Grand Slam in the snow at Twickenham last year.
Here's everything you need to know ahead of Ireland's huge opening clash with England in Dublin...
- Six Nations since 2000: Four-time winners (2009, 2014, 2015, 2018)
- Overall: 14 titles outright (1894, 1896, 1899, 1935, 1948, 1949, 1951, 1974, 1982, 1985, 2009, 2014, 2015, 2018)
- England - Aviva Stadium - Saturday, February 2 - 4.45pm (GMT)
- Scotland - Murrayfield - Saturday, February 9 - 2.15pm (GMT)
- Italy- Stadio Olimpico - Sunday, February 24 - 3pm (GMT)
- France - Aviva Stadium - Sunday, March 10 - 3pm (GMT)
- Wales - Principality Stadium - Saturday, March 16 - 2.45pm (GMT)
The 2018 Championship started in highly-dramatic fashion for Ireland, as a 45-metre drop goal from Johnny Sexton with the very last kick of the game - and after 41 phases - ensured a winning start at the Stade de France with a 15-13 victory over France.
Week two of the 2018 Championship saw Ireland put eight tries past Italy in a 56-19 win at the Aviva Stadium, before another bonus-point victory - 37-27 - in week three over Wales kept Six Nations Grand Slam hopes alive.
A 28-8 bonus-point victory over Scotland in week four kept up a 100 per cent record ahead of a final day clash with England at Twickenham, where a Grand Slam was on the line.
On a bitingly-cold St Patrick's Day, tries from Garry Ringrose, CJ Stander and Jacob Stockdale saw Ireland secure a third Grand Slam in their history - and first under Schmidt - with a memorable 24-15 win.
In 2019, will Ireland be able to navigate past an improved England on the opening week? Will they travel to Murrayfield and win?
And could they possibly head to Cardiff on Super Saturday with another Grand Slam on the line? It would be some way for Schmidt to sign off from Six Nations duties...
In truth, there's a lot that's hot in Irish rugby right now. Indeed, the current period is arguably the greatest age in Irish rugby history.
On a run of six wins on the trot and 18 from their last 19 Tests, unbeaten at home in over two years, reigning Six Nations, Grand Slam and Triple Crown winners and most recently having defeated the World No 1 All Blacks in Dublin for the very first time, things could hardly be in a better place.
Added to that, Leinster are the reigning Champions Cup and PRO14 champions, while all four Irish provinces are performing strongly in Europe and the PRO14 so far this season.
The depth in Irish rugby at present is also at a level unrivalled in history, with the squad now genuinely three deep per position.
Case in point: Schmidt lost opensides Sean O'Brien and Dan Leavy to injury in the week leading up to the New Zealand Test, with Josh van der Flier coming in and performing superbly. Meanwhile, that historic 16-9 win was also achieved without the services of Conor Murray - undoubtedly one of the best players in the world.
In short, Ireland could not be better placed than they are now. Will they be able to handle such expectation?
There's very little about this Ireland camp that can be criticised currently, but the announcement from head coach Schmidt in November that he will be departing after the next World Cup was an undoubted blow.
The Kiwi has added an immeasurable amount to Irish rugby in his nine seasons in the country - three as head coach of Leinster; six as national head coach.
His spell has been trophy-laden, while the standards and belief Schmidt has brought to the Ireland set-up has been considerable.
He will be near irreplaceable and his replacement Andy Farrell - while having done a stellar job in his role as defensive coach within the Ireland camp since 2016 - has a huge job on his hands.
How the players react to his impending exit will be interesting to note, as will their approach to this final season ahead of the World Cup.
Irish teams have entered rugby's showpiece event off the back of eye-catching campaigns in the past and flattered to deceive; 2007 saw them pick up a Triple Crown and November clean sweep before exiting at the pool stage.
2011 saw a group ,which had picked up a first Grand Slam in 61 years two years previous, lose to Wales in a quarter-final, while 2015 saw them head to the World Cup as back-to-back Six Nations champions and off the back of another November clean sweep before suffering a quarter-final exit to Argentina.
Can this Ireland team prove they have not peaked too soon?
Losing in-form second rows Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson to knee and finger injuries respectively are negatives though, heading towards their first game.
Not much has changed since last year's successful exploits. Wing Stockdale has transitioned from Six Nations newcomer to one of the form backs in the world, while second row James Ryan is now regarded as one of the best players in Europe.
And since 2018's Six Nations win, Ireland travelled to Australia in June and won a Test series 2-1 (their first ever three-Test tour win, and second ever against the Wallabies since 1979), and, as mentioned above, beat New Zealand in Dublin for the first time in their history.
Head coach Schmidt has confirmed his departure date too. Can Ireland succeed in his last Championship?
Johnny Sexton. Ireland - and his province Leinster - just aren't the same side without 2018's World Player of the Year in the team.
The fly-half is an extension of Schmidt on the pitch. Not only does he know his own game inside-out, he knows each and every other player's game in the Ireland side inside-out.
A winner on the field of play who sets the ultimate standards, keeping Sexton fit is critical to any potential title tilt.
Ireland's squad for the 2018 Six Nations:
Forwards (22): Rory Best (c), Tadhg Beirne, Jack Conan, Sean Cronin, Ultan Dillane, Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy, Iain Henderson, Dave Kilcoyne, Jack McGrath, Jordi Murphy, Sean O'Brien, Peter O'Mahony, Andrew Porter, Rhys Ruddock, James Ryan, John Ryan, Niall Scannell, CJ Stander, Devin Toner, Josh Van Der Flier, Quinn Roux.
Backs (17): Will Addison, Bundee Aki, Caolin Blade, Joey Carbery, Jack Carty, Andrew Conway, John Cooney, Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Tom Farrell, Robbie Henshaw, Rob Kearney, Jordan Larmour, Conor Murray, Garry Ringrose, Johnny Sexton, Jacob Stockdale.