Analysis: Ireland face difficult second album syndrome

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Reaching the top of the mountain is one thing, staying there is another altogether.

Reaching the top of the mountain is one thing, staying there is another altogether.

That’s the challenge facing Ireland as they prepare for the 2019 Guinness Six Nations – how to follow an almost-perfect 2018 in which they conquered all before them.

When you’re coming off the single greatest year in Irish rugby history, what do you do for an encore?

A first Grand Slam in nine years, a victorious summer tour to Australia and beating the fearsome New Zealand in Dublin for the first time in their history – when Joe Schmidt planned 2018, even he surely couldn’t have dreamed of such an incredible 12 months.

Victory over the All Blacks in the Autumn Internationals confirmed that Ireland had reached the top of the tree but now there’s a target on their backs.

Schmidt and co head into every match not as the hunters but as the hunted and that brings a different kind of pressure.

Nothing so far has suggested that Ireland’s well-drilled, well-disciplined team will crumble under that pressure but to match last year’s achievement in the Championship, they must make history.

Such is the depth of Rugby’s Greatest Championship that no teams has won back-to-back Grand Slams in the Six Nations era.

France’s 1997-98 vintage – Fabien Galthié, Thomas Castaignède, Philippe Bernat-Salles et al – were the last to achieve that monumental feat, so the Irish crop of 2019 will be joining exalted company should they manage it.

The most recent team seeking back-to-back Grand Slams was of course England, when they headed into the 2017 Championship having gone five from five the year before.

Eddie Jones’ men came close but their hopes were eventually ended by, fittingly, Ireland in Round 5 as an Iain Henderson try, converted by Johnny Sexton, and two Sexton penalties saw them triumph 13-9 in Dublin.

It’s poetic that England will have the first opportunity to stop Ireland achieving what they couldn’t two years ago – as the teams square off at the Aviva Stadium this Saturday.

All the talk in the build-up has been about physicality and you get the feeling Jones’ men would dearly love to gain revenge for not only that defeat but last year’s 24-15 loss at Twickenham.

That will be easier said than done but an autumn that saw them earn three wins from four means optimism is sweeping the streets of London once more.

Perhaps Joe Schmidt’s greatest achievement as Ireland coach is the incredible strength in depth he’s built throughout his squad.

It has enabled them to weather any injuries without missing a beat and in a Championship as intense as the Guinness Six Nations, that can be the difference between success and failure.

Their current lock situation is the perfect case in points. Iain Henderson is struggling with a finger injury, while Tadhg Beirne’s knee issue has ruled him out of at least the first two rounds of the Championship.

Losing two world-class operators in the second row would scupper most teams and while Schmidt would, of course, dearly love to those two behemoths available to him – he still faces a selection dilemma due to the quality behind them.

Any team that can call on James Ryan, Devin Toner, Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane in the engine room will find themselves in a pretty good place.

Ireland’s starting XV is fearsome, their matchday 23 is superb but to still have world-class players pushing for a place behind them is what sets them apart.

So when the physical nature of the 2019 Guinness Six Nations starts to take its toll, don’t back against Schmidt digging deep into his player pool and emerging with a gem that could just help them create history.