Six Nations preview: Can Ireland defend their crown?

Rugby Thursday January 18, 2024 By: Harry Howes

Six Nations fever is gripping the rugby world and having already taken a look at England’s chances, it’s time for a deep dive on reigning champions Ireland.

The men from the Emerald Isle were imperious last year, sweeping all before them on their way to a Grand Slam. But could the pressure of a title defence weigh on their minds going into this year’s competition?

They’ll be without influential captain Johnny Sexton, who has called time on his playing career. Meanwhile, they may still carry the psychological effects of yet another World Cup quarter-final exit.

Ireland were among the favourites heading into the competition in France but once again failed to reach the final four as they narrowly lost to New Zealand.

While that will no doubt be playing on their minds, there’s every reason to be optimistic for Ireland fans as they enter a new era. And with a mouth-watering clash against favourites France kicking off proceedings, rugby fans across the world are counting down the days for the action to get underway.

When are Ireland playing?

France v Ireland – Friday 2nd February: Orange Vélodrome, Marseille

Ireland v Italy – Sunday 11th February: Aviva Stadium, Dublin

Ireland v Wales – Saturday 24th February: Aviva Stadium, Dublin

England v Ireland – Saturday 9th March: Twickenham, London

Ireland v Scotland – Saturday 16th March: Aviva Stadium, Dublin

Life after Johnny Sexton

While Ireland will be confident going into the competition, there’s no denying that there will be a huge Sexton-shaped hole in their backline. Their legendary captain hung up his boots following the World Cup, meaning Ireland head into the Six Nations under new leadership on the pitch.

Sexton led Ireland to four Six Nations wins and he holds the record for the highest number of points in the competition with 566. His influence will be missed but coach Andy Farrell will be hoping new captain Peter O’Mahony can fill the void.

The Munster flanker is no stranger to leadership having already captained his nation on 10 occasions, as well as the British and Irish Lions, and he’ll be desperate to repay Farrell’s faith by bringing the Six Nations title home for the second year in a row.

As well as Sexton’s leadership, Ireland will miss the former fly-half’s points and there’s pressure on his deputies to step up to the plate. Jack Crowley, Harry Byrne and Ciaran Frawley have just 12 caps between them but the fly-half trio have been called up to fill Sexton’s shoes.

Meanwhile, there have been changes to the Ireland World Cup squad that crashed out in the quarter-finals. Jacob Stockdale and Nick Timoney are back in the frame, as are Jordan Larmour, Calvin Nash and Cian Healy who missed out on the tournament in France through injury.

Can Ireland win the Six Nations?

Having won it last time out, all eyes will be on Ireland to repeat the feat this time around. They stormed to the title last spring, winning all five matches to claim their fourth Grand Slam.

Ireland have won the Six Nations on four of the last 10 occasions and despite the absence of Sexton, there’s no reason why they can’t go all the way and secure a 16th title. One side that could stand in their way is France, who are the favourites to win having undergone a remarkable turnaround in recent years.

With both sides expected to dominate throughout, there’s every chance this year’s winners could be decided on the opening weekend. The heavyweight pair go head-to-head in the competition’s curtain-raiser on Friday 2nd February and it would come as no surprise if the winners of that clash went all the way.

Ireland Six Nations squad

Forwards: Ryan Baird, Finlay Bealham, Tadhg Beirne, Jack Conan, Caelan Doris, Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy, Iain Henderson, Ronan Kelleher, Jeremy Loughman, Joe McCarthy, Peter O’Mahony, Tom O’Toole, Andrew Porter, James Ryan, Dan Sheehan, Tom Stewart, Nick Timoney, Josh van der Flier

Backs: Bundee Aki, Harry Byrne, Craig Casey, Jack Crowley, Ciaran Frawley, Jamison Gibson-Park, Robbie Henshaw, Hugo Keenan, Jordan Larmour, James Lowe, Stuart McCloskey, Conor Murray, Calvin Nash, Garry Ringrose, Jacob Stockdale

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