St. Patrick’s Weekend is an imaginably raucous time in Dublin, but this year, it could reach new levels altogether.
On March 18, Ireland will host England in Round 5 of the Six Nations Championship, which given the class-leading form of the two countries, could very well serve as the decider for both a Grand Slam and the Six Nations itself.
But Ireland coach Joe Schmidt firmly rebuffed any attempt to label his team as anything in the lead up to the tournament.
“Favourites is a tag that is external to our environment,” the New Zealand born gaffer said at the Championships launch, “we try to go less for prediction and more for preparation”.
This has been a running theme during Schmidt’s tenure as head coach of Ireland.
In 2013, his first year in charge, he gave New Zealand a mighty fright, in 2014 won the Six Nations, in 2015 defended it, and in 2016 finished off what he started three years prior, delivering Ireland’s first ever win over the All Blacks.
Last year also saw the first time the Irish claimed victories over South Africa, NZ, and Australia in a calendar year – largely considered one of, if not the best year in their rugby history.
Not only did Schmidt managed to build on the invaluable chemistry required between his top players, such his front row and halves pairing but he also introduced promising young talents to the fray, such as Josh van der Flier and Garry Ringrose.
Halfway through this current World Cup cycle, and it appears Irish rugby is in good hands. They’re building the resilience required through success at major tournaments, and they’re doing it at a historical pace.
But what about England? After all, if Eddie Jones’ men manage the well within reach Grand Slam on offer this Championships, they will end up setting the record for consecutive test wins for a tier one nation.
The very same record the Irish stopped New Zealand 1 game short of achieving in their historic win in Chicago.
This team is well and truly unrecognisable from the one Eddie Jones took off Stuart Lancasters’ hands after their ignominious departure from their own World Cup in 2015.
But only in theory – not in practice.
Much of the England team from the previous World Cup remains. Most of the forward pack has been retained, as have backline shot-callers Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell.
The difference in the squad, despite the obvious boost in confidence provided by result after result, is the career best form being enjoyed by most of the teams’ players, ultimate buoyed by Jones’ instinctive and well-drilled game plan.
Many see the annual competitions such as the Six Nations and Rugby Championships as mere dress rehearsals for the World Cup, and a successful title defence will be a key indicator to where England are at mentally coming off a wildly successful year.
They kick off that defence against France at Twickenham – the kind of fixture England will hope to be well on top of given their recent track record against the French.
Winners of three of their last four over their hated neighbours to the south, everyone in the rugby world is well aware of the unicorn that is Les Bleus.
But new head coach Guy Noves is working to mould that unicorn into more of a racehorse, and with the foals available to 62-year-old, we have begun to see the creation of a blue chip thoroughbred.
Disappointingly for France, they will be without key talents Wesley Fofana in the midfield and talented five eighth Francois Trinh-Duc.
However this did not matter to Noves’ men last June, when a green bellied French outfit, without many of its’ best talents, shut out Argentina 27-0.
Many a false dawn have plagued the French under their past few head coaches. Neither Philippe Saint-Andre nor Marc Lievermont managed to add consistency to the qualities of their best years in control.
Whilst they may not be ready to win it just yet, if Guy Noves’ men can put in a strong showing in this years’ Championships, the French may very well be treated to the team they’ve been promised since the turn of the century.
More to come from the other three nations in part ii