However, Cardiff once offered refuge but now it’s where dreams go to die
Andy Farrell may never get a better chance to win a Six Nations as Ireland coach. The stars have aligned for Ireland, and while their path to glory is littered with tricky obstacles, they have the quality to plot a route to a Grand Slam.
He’s contracted until 2025 and will likely lead the team to the 2027 World Cup, but with Johnny Sexton on board for his final tournament, a squad that has earned its No 1 ranking, a relatively favourable schedule and a couple of rival teams trying to bed in new coaches on the run, opportunity knocks.
Some will shy away from that talk and point to the 2019 collapse as evidence of what can go wrong at this point in a World Cup cycle. But the coach, his captain and a considerable number of the senior players were there for that experience and it’s clear from the way Farrell has been speaking since the Series win in New Zealand that he’s refusing to allow the team to fall in love with themselves.
Finishing November with a faltering win over Australia was almost perfect; the mood in the aftermath was far from jubilant. Overconfidence shouldn’t be a problem.
After all, for all of their achievements, this team has yet to lift the Six Nations trophy despite going into the final day with a chance of doing so in two of the three iterations. In the recent history of Irish rugby, five years is a long time to wait for silverware.
When Farrell looks at his squad, he’ll see togetherness and stability.
When he casts a glance at the opposition, he’ll see one rival in his own image, two that have torn up their scripts in the hope that chaos trumps continuity and a pair of tricky away trips to teams that are threatening resurgence.
The schedule is the same as it was in 2021 when Ireland were derailed by Peter O’Mahony’s red card in Cardiff, giving oxygen to a Wales team that somehow came within minutes of a Grand Slam.
In such moments can tournaments pivot wildly. There’s a reason there’s so much talk of ‘momentum’ at the launch. Even in a world where every metric is available to analysts, that intangible remains the most important quality.
World Cup warm-ups aside, Ireland haven’t won in the Welsh capital for a decade.
There was a time when Cardiff offered refuge for an Irish team who couldn’t buy a win anywhere else, but it’s a venue where tournament dreams go to die these days.
Warren Gatland will cut a familiar figure in the coach’s box and while there’s chaos behind the scenes at the Welsh union, where the chief executive was forced to resign over accusations of institutional sexism last weekend, the Kiwi has always had a canny ability to get a team to perform regardless of what’s going on beyond the walls of their Vale of Glamorgan base.
Can he work his magic again? Certainly, he has struggled since the 2019 World Cup. The 2021 Lions were unpopular losers who played dire rugby as they tried to beat the Springboks at their own game, while his return to Waikato failed to ignite much from the Chiefs.
Yet there is a symbiotic relationship between Gatland and Wales that works. He and the other new man at the helm, Steve Borthwick, will try and make their teams difficult to beat, yet the World Cup is the undeniable focus for both.
England are up last for Ireland and the schedule offers them a real chance to go to Dublin with a title on the line.
Borthwick has good players who lost their way under Eddie Jones. Scotland have been their bogey team in recent years, but it’s hard to see them stopping the new regime starting with a win at Twickenham.
Then, it’s Italy at home, Wales away and France at home before the Aviva Stadium. Quietly, he’ll fancy his chances of fixing enough to get them through to the final day. For England and Wales, it’s about hope rather than expectation.
France, like Ireland, have earned the right to believe they can win this tournament. With a first Grand Slam in a decade last year and a World Cup on the horizon next autumn, they’ve a phenomenal team that includes a strong bench and a clever coaching team.
Sure, theirs is another union in crisis, but Fabien Galthié should be able to insulate his squad.
Their enemy is a schedule that takes them to London and Dublin. If they win the Grand Slam with those two away trips on their agenda, then they’ll go down as one of the great Six Nations teams.
There have been signs recently, however, that Antoine Dupont is not quite at his sparkling best and they’ll miss the magic that Jonathan Danty provides in midfield. A six-day turnaround from Italy to Ireland won’t help matters, especially when the Italians are to be taken more seriously this time.
They won’t be in the mix when the medals are handed out, but Kieran Crowley’s side have beaten Wales and Australia in the past 12 months, and with a young cohort now expecting more from themselves and perhaps unburdened by the weight of historic failure, they’ll want to take at least one more scalp. France, Wales and Ireland are in Rome and they’ll all be a little bit warier about rotating.
The only thing consistent about Scotland is their bulletproof self-belief, yet with Gregor Townsend likely in his final season and Edinburgh performing well, there’s reason to believe they can pick up a few wins. And yet, it’s impossible to invest much faith given their incredible capacity to shoot themselves in the foot.
Which allows us to return to Ireland.
Ranked No 1 in the world, they go into the tournament with Sexton and most of their big hitters fit. Their biggest absentee, Robbie Henshaw, is due back early on.
Farrell has built a team that can mix it up front while playing some scintillating attacking rugby, and while they didn’t produce that in November, they demonstrated other ways to win games. James Lowe’s return transforms what they can do in attack.
Josh van der Flier has carried his World Player of the Year form on, while he’s ably supported by Caelan Doris and Tadhg Beirne.
The red flags around key players and the 37-year-old captain in particular remain. The title bid can be derailed by a sending-off or an ill-timed injury, but approaching the start line, there’s reason for fans can expect a charge for honours. They proved last year they’re a team to be reckoned with and they’ve a horrible World Cup draw to contend with next autumn.
In the here and now, the Six Nations is the main event and it’s well worth winning. Ireland have the tools to go and do it.