The Lowdown: Ireland

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As the side currently ranked top of the world, there is an understandable weight of expectation on Ireland as they begin what could be a monumental year.

As the side currently ranked top of the world, there is an understandable weight of expectation on Ireland as they begin what could be a monumental year.

Andy Farrell’s side are in search of a first Guinness Six Nations crown since 2018 and with clashes against likely title rivals France and England both taking place in their Dublin fortress, hopes are high the trophy could be decorated with green ribbons come March 18.

Here’s what to expect from Ireland in 2023…

Ireland have evolved throughout Farrell’s tenure, the Englishman having stepped up from defence coach to the main gig in the wake of the 2019 World Cup.

Initially functional and perhaps over-reliant on the boot of Johnny Sexton, Farrell has gradually freed the shackles and encouraged his charges to express themselves.

The results are there in All Black and white, Ireland coming from 1-0 down to record a momentous 2-1 series win in New Zealand last summer having scored more tries than anyone else in last year’s Guinness Six Nations.

Dynamic forwards such as Tadhg Beirne, Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris have been central to the shift in approach while there is a comforting familiarity to a backline still including the likes of Sexton, Garry Ringrose and Bundee Aki.

A star of both codes, Farrell made his name as a player in league but has spent his coaching career in a union dugout.

For all the improvements he has made since becoming Ireland’s head coach, silverware has been lacking and he is yet to lift the Championship since taking over.

It’s a record he will be itching to put right and Farrell will hope a Grand Slam remains on the line by the time he welcomes his son, Owen, and England on Super Saturday.

Having featured in every Six Nations since 2010, this will be Johnny Sexton’s swansong.

Now 37, he remains as influential as ever on and off the field and goes into this Championship with two of Ronan O’Gara’s records tantalisingly within reach.

Sexton is 78 points behind O’Gara on Ireland’s list of all-time points scorers while he needs 27 more points to surpass his predecessor and become the leading scorer in Six Nations history.

There are no shortage of options but it’s hard to look past the reigning World Rugby Player of the Year.

Josh van der Flier was Ireland’s player of the series in the historic win in New Zealand and backed it up in the autumn, scoring against South Africa as another southern hemisphere powerhouse were toppled.

At 29, the all-action flanker is at his peak and looks set for a Championship to remember.

Ireland’s established core makes it tough for newcomers to force the door open, so the fact Jamie Osborne has done just that speaks volumes.

The only uncapped player in the 37-man squad, the centre is the latest off the seemingly endless Leinster production line and has shone on domestic and European duty this season.

Competition is fierce but if given an opportunity, Osborne looks ready to seize it.

He may not gather headlines like some of his teammates in the backline but Hugo Keenan has become an integral part of Ireland’s XV.

A rock at full-back, Keenan scored in the thumping win at Twickenham last year and showed his defensive mettle with a superb try-saving tackle on Stuart Hogg when Scotland came to Dublin.

Ireland won the Triple Crown in 2022, only denied a Grand Slam by eventual winners France in a ding-dong Round 2 battle which ended 30-24 in the hosts’ favour in Paris.

Farrell’s men picked themselves to make history in New Zealand before downing South Africa, Fiji and Australia in an unbeaten Autumn Nations Series campaign.

15 Hugo Keenan, 14 Mack Hansen, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 James Lowe, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park; 1 Andrew Porter, 2 Dan Sheehan, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 4 Tadhg Beirne, 5 James Ryan, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 7 Josh van der Flier, 8 Caelan Doris

Popular with tourists throughout the year, there is a particularly special buzz around Dublin at Six Nations time.

The Aviva Stadium is situated within walking distance – or a simple bus or train ride – of the city centre and the noise generated means you’ll know about an Ireland score even if you’re touring the world-renowned Guinness Storehouse a couple of miles away.

Clinical, ruthless, relentless – call it what you want, Ireland have become a winning machine over the last 12 months.

Their attacking edge is increasing all the time and they also have what it takes to grind matches out when not playing well, as Australia found in the autumn.

The strength in depth in the pack is arguably unmatched in this year’s Championship and will form the basis of their title bid.

Weakness: Depth at fly-half

It’s hard to pick many holes in Ireland’s starting XV but there remains a sense an injury to Sexton could be pivotal.

Joey Carbery, last year’s deputy, has been left out the squad this time and back-up 10s Ross Byrne and Jack Crowley have just 16 caps between them.

Ireland’s talisman looks set to recover from a knock to feature in the opener in Cardiff but if injury re-occurs, the pressure will be on the inexperienced duo.

Cian Tracey, Irish Independent: “The Irish don’t like being favourites, we much prefer being underdogs.

“We are the number one ranked team in the world but I still think France are the team to beat.

“The fixture list is in Ireland’s favour, with France and England coming to Dublin, and the tone will be set in the opener in Cardiff, which is not traditionally a happy hunting ground.

“With England on the last day, the day after St Patrick’s Day, in Dublin… if either side are in with a shout of the title, what a weekend that will be.”

Have appeared on the cusp of global domination for several years and, fresh from a summer to remember, now look ready to make that step.

Spearheaded by a no-nonsense figure from the north of England who lives by a motto of heavy hit after heavy hit, they are particularly strong on home soil and thrive on an ‘us against the world’ mentality.