Schmidt’s men will need a strong chin to stay standing as they put their Slam on the line
They are the world’s No 2 side who beat the only team ranked above them in their last game of note. The team of 2018 coached by the coach of 2018 and led by the player of 2018. The Grand Slam champions and All Black conquerors who went to Australia and won for good measure. If last year is a barometer for success, then Ireland are in for a sensational year.
The problem with that is that past achievement guarantees you nothing in elite sport. Joe Schmidt and his team won’t spend any time glancing at the rear-view mirror.
The proposition in front of them is one that deserves their full attention. There is every chance that the winner of this year’s World Cup lurks in the Six Nations field.
Ireland, Wales and England are ranked below New Zealand but, by the end of the tournament, the All Blacks may have been supplanted as the pre-eminent side for the first time in almost a decade.
The World Cup will frame the backdrop for this competition, but this week the local rivalries come to the fore.
After all, what is the point of international sport if Ireland cannot enjoy the feeling of beating England regardless of the overall context?
Having provided the grand finales in the last two seasons, this is the first time since 2000 that the two sides meet in the opening game, and the first time since 1995 that Ireland have welcomed England to Dublin on the first weekend.
The result and performances will set the tone for everything that follows.
Win, and Ireland sustain the momentum of their most successful year and roll on to Murrayfield. Lose, and their trips to Edinburgh, Rome and Cardiff and France’s revenge mission to Dublin suddenly become laced with danger.
The schedule has not been kind to Schmidt’s men.
Until recently, the uneven years were considered the easier – with home advantage against England and France and the relatively comfortable trips to Celtic cousins and the even more comfortable visit to Rome – but that picture has changed somewhat.
At the outset of the tournament, Ireland are favourites but that could be turned on its head by Saturday night.
Certainly, England arrive in Dublin this weekend buoyed by a resurgent November and a sense that the fitness of key players can propel them back to the point where they dominated this competition two years ago.
For all that their clubs have collectively not performed in Europe, Saracens remain a potent force and the Premiership champions’ stars back-bone Eddie Jones’ side.
In particular, Billy Vunipola is a game-changer for the 2017 winners. No one attracts defenders like the big No 8, whose distribution skills make him doubly dangerous.
With a pack capable of doing damage and Owen Farrell running the show behind, they have the weapons to hurt every team.
Tomorrow night, Wales and France get the show on the road.
Jacques Brunel has injected the French backline with some Clermont combinations and will always field a terrifying pack, but the squad appears to lack the continuity of the others.
In contrast, Wales have been steadily building towards 2019 and with Warren Gatland set for the exit at the end of the year they look very dangerous indeed.
Ireland go to Cardiff on the final day on the back of a six-day turnaround from a bruising encounter with France. Schmidt is yet to beat the Welsh in a competitive fixture at the Principality Stadium.
Wales caused Ireland real defensive problems last season, as did Scotland, whose quick ball and wide-wide approach stretched Andy Farrell’s system.
They welcome Ireland in Round 2 in what is a dress-rehearsal for the opening game of the sides’ World Cup campaign in Yokohama next September. Ireland lost on their last visit to Murrayfield and, while they’re sure to have sorted out a new bus driver, they’ll go with a point to prove.
Italy remain the poor relation despite the improvement of the structures beneath the national team on Conor O’Shea’s watch and, if they are to cause a shock, it seems unlikely to come when Ireland visit Rome in Round 3.
That weekend sees Wales welcome England to Cardiff in a match that could define the tournament overall.
If Gatland’s men are still alive on St Patrick’s weekend they’ll be a dangerous proposition.
Nobody has completed back-to-back Grand Slams in the Six Nations era – the French team of 1997 and 1998 were the last to go the distance twice, when the distance was shorter.
Beating five teams of this quality two years on the trot requires remarkable levels of consistency.
That has been the hallmark of Schmidt’s time in charge of Ireland; his team’s performance levels rarely dip and their winning ratio remains high as a result.
Even if they can’t complete a clean sweep, a second successive title with this calibre of field would be a real achievement.
In a World Cup year it would represent a statement.
However, every team they face will be looking to make a similar statement. Beating Ireland is now a real feather in the cap of a team aspiring to big things in Japan.
It raises the stakes for each and every one of Ireland’s games in the next seven weeks of spring rugby.
Even in a World Cup year, the Six Nations still compels at this time of year, and the strength of the teams on the starting blocks lends further suspense.
If, on March 16, Ireland retain their title and head to the World Cup as the No 1 side they’ll have earned it.
Danger lurks at every turn as they put their title and their reputation as one of the favourites for the Webb Ellis Cup on the line against their nearest and dearest neighbours.