Ireland narrowly missed out on the Guinness Six Nations title last year but there were plenty of positive signs during Andy Farrell’s first Championship in charge and they journey into 2021 confident of going one better.
Topping the table heading into Super Saturday, defeat away to France ultimately scuppered their chances of winning the title for a fourth time in seven years as England nipped in to take the crown.
They ended up third in the table, a result they matched in the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup by defeating Scotland in the 3rd/4th place play-off following a solid campaign.
The transition from six years of Joe Schmidt being in charge to Farrell’s first year as a head coach wasn’t completely smooth but the foundations appear to be in place.
A mix of wily veterans such as Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Cian Healy and Peter O’Mahony blend with talented new faces like Hugo Keenan, James Lowe and Will Connors to make for an impressive squad that could well be in the mix again come the 2021 edition of Super Saturday.
Johnny Sexton doesn’t need much introducing, having been one of world rugby’s best fly-halves for over a decade now and, if he features in all five matches of the 2021 Guinness Six Nations, he will surpass 100 caps for his country.
A hamstring issue briefly threatened his participation in Round 1 of this year’s Championship but he’s fully fit and will don the captain’s armband against Wales in Cardiff on Sunday.
While the battle rages between the likes of Billy Burns, Ross Byrne and Jack Carty to be Sexton’s current back-up and perhaps Ireland’s long-term answer at No.10, the 35-year-old shows no signs of slowing down.
His understanding of the game, decision-making, kicking both out of hand and from the tee are all exemplary and his almost telepathic understanding with half-back partner Conor Murray keeps Ireland ticking.
Andy Farrell has been a well-respected, rising star of the coaching ranks almost since the minute he retired from playing and took up an assistant coach role at Saracens back in 2009.
Defence coach for England from 2011 to 2015 and then for Ireland under Joe Schmidt, Farrell was handed the top job following the 2019 Rugby World Cup when Schmidt stepped down from the role.
While there was inevitably some continuity from the Schmidt era, Farrell was keen to instil his own coaching and rugby philosophy on the squad and 2020 saw Ireland slowly adapt and develop their game accordingly.
They, and Farrell, are far from the finished article but the former dual-code international appears to be moulding the men in green in his own image and as a well-drilled side, they are more than capable of winning any match they play.
HOW THEY GOT ON LAST YEAR
The Farrell era began with a hard-fought 19-12 victory over Scotland in Dublin as captain fantastic Sexton scored all 19 of Ireland’s points and Caelan Doris and Ronan Kelleher both made their international debuts – although the former was forced off injured just five minutes into the game.
Another home win – 24-14 against Wales – followed in Round 2 but a trip to Twickenham in Round 3 proved a bridge too far as England emerged 24-12 winners.
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The Grand Slam dream may have been over but, after an eight-month break due to the worldwide pandemic, Ireland picked up in style in October with a seven-try 50-17 triumph over Italy at the Aviva Stadium to go top of the table and put their 2020 Guinness Six Nations fate in their own hands.
Even after England beat Italy 34-5 on Super Saturday, Ireland knew that a bonus-point victory in Paris would be enough to guarantee the title but instead, a scintillating France performance saw Les Bleus prevail 35-27.
That actually dropped Ireland to third in the final reckoning, the same position they would finish in the Autumn Nations Cup, but they had been agonisingly close to lifting the trophy themselves.
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Ireland will fancy their chances of building on last year’s Championship showing and a trip to Wales in Round 1 should provide a fascinating litmus test.
Last time Ireland were at Principality Stadium for a Guinness Six Nations match, Wales flew out of the blocks with an early Hadleigh Parkes try and won 25-7 to seal the Grand Slam in 2019, and they haven’t beaten their Celtic rivals in Cardiff, in the Championship, since 2013.
Victory on Sunday would send a statement and set Farrell and co up for a revenge mission against France in Dublin in Round 2.
It being an odd year, three of Ireland’s games are away from home but it’s their second contest at the Aviva Stadium – against England on Super Saturday – that could prove decisive in the final reckoning.
England and France head into the 2021 Championship as favourites but both sides have to go through Dublin if they want a Grand Slam and if the men in green can make the Aviva the fortress it normally is, even without fans in attendance, they might just have something to say about the destination of the title.
Wales v Ireland, Cardiff, February 7, Kick-off: 15:00
Ireland v France, Dublin, February 14, Kick-off: 15:00
Italy v Ireland, Rome, February 27, Kick-off: 14:15
Scotland v Ireland, Edinburgh, March 14, Kick-off: 15:00
Ireland v England, Dublin, March 20, Kick-off: 16:45