Eamonn Sweeney: Is it absurdly optimistic to imagine that Ireland might dethrone England in the Six Nations?
Now we may begin. No more need to make wild extrapolations from mid-season Premier League results, indulge in GAA winter talk, ponder the meaning of the November internationals or project the results of warm-up races forward to Cheltenham. The Six Nations marks the real beginning of the sporting year, bringing with it a refreshing hint of winter's end and evoking memories of Gerry McLoughlin being trundled over the line at Twickenham, a Michael Kiernan drop goal slithering between the posts in the dying stages, O'Driscoll hat-tricks, O'Connell charges and nerveless O'Gara conversions.
There is a feeling that this year's championship is largely a preamble to the one game that matters - a St Patrick's Day final-round showdown between England and Ireland with everything on the line. However, most pundits, myself included, predicted exactly the same dénouement for the 2017 championship.
Instead, when England came to Dublin for the finale they'd already sewn up the title, while Ireland were playing not for ultimate honours but to prevent the campaign being an utter disaster. They did so and it may have been the most important victory of Joe Schmidt's reign. A second successive two-win Six Nations would have cast serious doubts over the team's trajectory.
Such is the optimism surrounding Ireland at the moment it's easy to forget how ropey our last two Six Nations campaigns have been. We've won just five games out of 10, losing to Scotland, France and England, losing to and drawing with Wales.
So is it absurdly optimistic to imagine that Ireland might dethrone England? Not really. Last year's victory over Eddie Jones' side does feel like a turning point. Our performances against South Africa and Argentina and the exploits of Leinster and Munster in the Champions Cup offer genuine grounds for hope.
There is a sense of a team approaching a peak, a team potentially much stronger than the one which won the 2014 and 2015 championships. In Conor Murray and Tadhg Furlong, Ireland have the best performers in the world in their positions. Johnny Sexton is the best outhalf in the competition and, in the absence of Billy Vunipola, CJ Stander the best ball-carrying forward. Ireland have the strongest front-row and a potentially terrific centre partnership in Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki. The absence of Seán O'Brien is a blow but occurs in an area where Ireland have strength in depth. Expect Josh van der Flier to step in and enjoy a breakthrough season. Iain Henderson and Peter O'Mahony, the heroes of last year's final match, have kicked on from there and enjoyed an excellent Lions tour.
So what is there to worry about? Perhaps a lack of power in the second-row. Last year it needed the introduction of Donncha Ryan to add the necessary physicality to this area; without him we look a little bit thin there. There's also the question of Joe Schmidt's back three selection. I've seen a Kearney-Earls-Conway combination suggested but this seems pretty uninspiring given the options. Jacob Stockdale has to start. The big Ulster wing has the potential to become one of the stars of the championship. No player made more clean breaks in the Champions Cup, while he looked close to the finished article when bagging a couple of tries against Argentina. Leaving him out so Ireland can effectively field three full-backs would bring caution to an extreme.
That Rob Kearney is Ireland's number one full-back seems to be a hill Schmidt is prepared to die on. Perhaps the Leinster player will justify the manager's faith and recapture the verve of old this term. Yet you wonder what Jordan Larmour or Joey Carbery might add at number 15. 'Not all that bad really' probably won't be good enough against England.
It is an eternal article of faith among Irish supporters that England are not all they're cracked up to be. We were still saying it about Clive Woodward's team as they filed up to receive their World Cup winners' medals. This tendency to under-rate the old enemy has hardly been discouraged by last year's upset in Dublin. Yet that remains the only defeat England have suffered in 24 games under Eddie Jones' stewardship. They have since recaptured the remorseless efficiency which secured the last two Six Nations titles and must be favourites to make it a hat-trick.
In Owen Farrell, they have a playmaker of Sexton's calibre and one whose performances for the Lions dispelled the idea that he can be flaky under pressure. His continued presence at centre can seem an oddity but the combination with George Ford at outhalf seems to work. Should the brilliant Anthony Watson replace the prosaic Mike Brown in the full-back slot, it will add a new attacking dimension to a team which also has the creative talents of Jonathan Joseph in the centre and deadly finishers on the wing in Jack Nowell and Jonny May.
Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury are the best second-row pairing in the Six Nations, while Maro Itoje is probably the best all-round forward. That only one English club qualified for the Champions Cup quarter-finals is largely due to the fact that while the Irish provinces rested key players in the Pro14, the English clubs were constantly at full strength in the Premier League. Ireland's advantage in terms of freshness will dissipate during the Six Nations.
English weaknesses? Vunipola would be a loss to any team in the world and his deputy, Nathan Hughes, will miss most of the Six Nations, leaving the team looking a bit stretched in the back-row. Ireland might be slightly stronger in the scrum. But when Jones did a GAA manager in reverse by insisting England deserve to be favourites, he was right.
Scotland's 53-24 hammering of Australia was perhaps the most impressive performance of the winter internationals, confirming the evidence of last year's Six Nations that they're the coming team. Their home tie against England on February 24 offers genuine possibilities of an upset and could be the game of the tournament.
What makes the Scots so dangerous, as Ireland found out last year, is a spirit of adventure which can make them resemble some free-flowing French team of old. Not long ago Stuart Hogg seemed a one-man band but now Scotland are bristling with attacking talent. Outhalf Finn Russell and centre Huw Jones exploded on to the scene last year, Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour are deadly opportunists, while new scumhalf Ali Price could be one of the championship's surprise packages.
But can they compete with Ireland and England up front? Redoubtable second-row Jonny Gray aside, their pack lacks top-class performers and the way in which Glasgow, who provide almost half of the Scottish squad, were pushed around in the Champions Cup must strike an ominous note for Gregor Townsend. All the same, Scotland will probably be the most enjoyable team to watch and their match next Saturday against Wales should tell a great deal about both countries.
Wales seem to be heading in the opposite direction to Scotland. Last year's fifth spot was their worst placing in 10 years and though victory against South Africa saw them finish the autumn internationals on a winning note, the impression of decline remained.
However, they did have go through last season's championship without Warren Gatland, who is bullish about their prospects in this one. As the Lions tour proved, Gatland should never be underestimated, yet it's very hard to see his side winning at Twickenham or the Aviva. They will be without the injured Sam Warburton and Jonathan Davies while Rhys Webb's move to Toulon has seen him passed over at scrumhalf.
There is a shop-worn look to Wales, with even the mighty Alun Wyn Jones looking underpowered during the Lions tour. It will be interesting to see how uncapped flanker James Davies, magnificent for the Scarlets in the Champions Cup, goes and Wales's chances may depend on injecting new blood into the team. The Scarlets pair of out-half Rhys Patchell and wing Steffon Evans, for example, have the potential to make a huge impact.
It was once customary to observe that 'You never know what you're going to get from the French.' Sadly, these days we do know and it's not very much. France were pretty unimpressive last season yet it was actually the first time since 2011 they finished in the top half of the table, even if it required some dubious carry-on in the absurdly elongated match with Wales to get them there.
They have a new manager, Jacques Brunel, who did six years with Italy before the arrival of Conor O'Shea, and he has opted for youth, with half of the squad under 25. Great things are expected from a pair of talented 21-year-olds, Toulon flyhalf Anthony Belleau and Toulouse scrumhalf Antoine Dupont, while France will no doubt be excellent in the front-row where they possess perhaps the best two hookers in the tournament, grizzled Toulon veteran Guilhem Guirado and energetic Racing youngster Camille Chat.
Such strength in depth is not available elsewhere and while France will no doubt pose problems for both Ireland and England in Paris, either of the big two would be very disappointed to lose to them. Third place would represent a very good season for France right now.
Italy seldom looked in as much disarray as they did last year, but a win over Fiji in November represented progress of a sort. Yet it's impossible to see them winning a Six Nations game and heavy defeats look on the cards in their opening encounters against England and Ireland.
Perhaps the best thing of all about this year's Six Nations is that it really matters in terms of world rugby. Not long ago the cynic could greet the arrival of the championship with the observation that it didn't matter because all the best teams were playing in the southern hemisphere. Now there's no denying that England and Ireland are the second and third best teams in world rugby. The ease with which Scotland and Wales defeated Australia and South Africa also suggests that at present the more meaningful competition occurs north of the equator.
Underestimating its strength is one mistake commonly made about the Six Nations. Underestimating its importance is another. The tendency to see it only in terms of the build-up to the next World Cup is wrong-headed. A quadrennial tournament where, to be honest, the chances of success for anyone but the All Blacks are slim, shouldn't trump an annual championship where Ireland have a chance of actually winning.
During the dark declining days of the Declan Kidney era, the idea of 'building for the World Cup' came to function as a kind of excuse for underwhelming performances. It is a mark of Schmidt's intelligence that he recognised the paramount importance of the Six Nations to Ireland and of his excellence that he immediately won a couple of them. The best World Cup preparation possible for Ireland would be to win the Six Nations at Twickenham on St Patrick's Day.
Winning the Six Nations still takes doing. As England and Ireland found out last year, there is always something waiting to upset the cocksure and the unwary. That is why this ancient competition retains its allure. That's what makes it beautiful.
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