‘We beat the All Blacks, we can beat anyone’
The Six Nations is a championship. A test of consistency, one week to the next.
Supporters remember 2016 for the two blockbuster performances. Defeating South Africa on their home turf for the first time and famously overcoming the All Blacks in Chicago
What isn’t mentioned is that Ireland’s only wins in the 2016 Six Nations Championship were against Scotland & Italy, while over the Summer, Joe Schmidt’s men ultimately lost a series against probably the worst South African team of all time.
Ireland have produced the goods in exceptional circumstances but that is all. For the amount of pundits backing Ireland to win this year’s championship, it’s worth noting that overall, Ireland have won just 6 of their last 13 games as opposed to England’s 13 game wins on the trot.
In review, Ireland failed to register a meaningful result against a European side in the calendar year. The English meanwhile, flawless. So why should Ireland be favourites?
Past results would make a betting man put his money on England for the title, but Ireland have some new men who might just make a difference.
One man coming into the fray as a starter in 2017 is Tadhg Furlong. His importance should not be understated. The Wexford man’s predecessor Mike Ross was the rock of the Irish scrum for his many years of service but offered little around the park – Furlong may just be the opposite.
His barnstorming carries have made all the highlight reels but his scrummaging capabilities are a serious talking point.
In last season’s Six Nations Furlong was a substitute for Ross and Nathan White throughout and came under extensive pressure in his cameos. France, most notably exposed the youngster in the latter stages of their encounter with Ireland as their scrum dominance helped them to pull through. The other Six Nations appearances were likewise, offering little more scrummaging promise. Fortunes turned slightly as Joe Schmidt called upon Connacht secondrow Quin Roux to scrummage behind him in South Africa, where the drive was solid if not unspectacular.
Furlong moved on to really make a name for himself in November against New Zealand and Australia, as he caused destruction to defences but also held his own at scrum time. Had Furlong simply matured come November or was it a case of being up against sides that traditionally have little reliance on their scrummage? Well Leinster form wouldn’t exactly suggest there’s a John Hayes/Tony Buckley hybrid on the horizon as many would agree that he’s also yet to dominate a European scrum at Champions Cup level.
If Furlong perfects his technique for the Six Nations then Ireland have possibly the best tighthead in the world, but there are certainly concerns based on last year’s outcome. Scrum struggles cost Ireland dear in the 2016 Six Nations, Furlong has to prove he’s the best man to mute that problem before he expresses his plentiful attributes elsewhere.
Replicate his November performances against better scrummagers, and Ireland will have a special weapon in their arsenal.
Jared Payne has been the midfield general at 13 for the majority of Joe Schmidt’s reign and his injury troubles will see Ireland weakened defensively but surely bolstered in attack.
Only because Garry Ringrose is a genuinely exciting, natural outside centre that Ireland haven’t seen the likes of since Brian O’Driscoll’s emergence in 1999.
Intelligent running lines with elusive execution has come to the forefront in Ringrose’ rise to prominence and such class with ball-in-hand could be set to take the Six Nations by storm. The Blackrock boy looks all the parts of the shot to the arm that Ireland need to kick on and cause defences more problems than previously the case.
Organization on D will be missed without Payne but Ringrose is a heavy hitter ready to make a point in all facets. With two seasons of Champions Cup rugby under his belt and appearances in the November internationals, this isn’t a case of throwing in that one player with a bit of a flair as a wildcard, this is a boy that’s ready to compete.