We are less than three weeks away from this year’s Guinness Six Nations and as the tournament edges ever closer the more it looks like the chances of winning it are edging away from five of the teams.
Ireland, as a national team, have had a stellar season. One defeat in Australia is the only blot on their copy book. A copy book that boasts 2 wins over the same opposition away from home, a victory over England at Twickenham to seal a Grand Slam and their first victory over the All Blacks on home soil in their long history.
Joe Schmidt, Andy Farrell and the rest of the coaching staff have created a winning culture, consistency and steeliness that has not been seen in the green shirt for a very long time, maybe even ever.
The current and future Head Coach have also never had the depth that they boast now either. All four of the Provinces are strong currently whereas in the past Connacht and lesser so Ulster, have had periods where they were the poor relation of Irish Rugby and couldn’t reach the dizzy heights that Leinster and Munster had achieved.
In recent year’s Connacht have won what was the Pro12 in 2016, beating Leinster in the final and can now boast 11 full Irish internationals in their squad.
Bundee Aki, Kieran Marmion and Ultan Dillane are household names in Ireland now but historically Connacht have produced very few internationals compared to their elevated neighbours.
The point I am making is that the talent pool is wider and spread more evenly across the provinces than it ever has been.
Focus around the cohesion between the national team and the provinces is high on the agenda and from an outsider looking in, it seems that the synergy between club and country is far more harmonious that some of the other home nations.
The weekend’s results will be scary reading for Ireland’s opponents as all four provinces won in Europe. Not only did they win but all four matches were against top opposition from England and France.
Munster mauled Gloucester at Kingsholm on Friday night and in the start of a running theme, it was Ireland’s big game players that stepped up to the plate.
Conor Murray, CJ Stander, Keith Earls and Peter O’Mahony all would have been worthy winners of the Man of the Match award but one man shone brighter than the rest.
Just to allay any fears that Irish fans may have should Johnny Sexton ever get injured, Joey Carbery unleashed a 26-point masterclass in the 10 shirt to further demonstrate the strength in depth that Joe Schimdt has at his disposal.
Leinster weren’t at their best in the first half against re-emerging giants Toulouse but the patience and confidence they exuded made you realise that the win was never in danger.
70% possession in the first half but only a four point lead may have deflated some teams but the European Champions are made of sterner stuff and without hitting top gear they earned a bonus point victory quite easily in a workman-like manner.
Ulster potentially had the most pressure on them at the weekend as they hosted Racing 92. A must win game to give them a chance of qualification and they duly delivered.
Jacob Stockdale’s stock is rising by the second with two tries, one of which was courtesy of one of his now trademark kick and chases.
The European Champions of ’99 were watching on from the side lines and the class of ’19 certainly gave them something to toast.
It was another game that in previous years may have seen Ulster buckle as Racing kept fighting back into a match that the men from Belfast looked to have control of but each time Ravenhill saw a resurgent reaction and Rory Best’s men repelled the onslaught with character and belief.
The aforementioned Stockdale and other Irish internationals like Jordi Murphy yet again stepped up and took leadership in the group along with Best. Murphy’s turnover in the final five minutes was just as valuable as either of Stockdale’s tries.
Connacht also had the weight of pressure on their shoulders knowing that a loss to Sale would have meant the Salford based outfit would qualify for the knock out stages.
They were not about to let their fans down though. They came from behind after relinquishing a 17 point lead themselves, to snatch victory against a full strength Sale and level up the table with one game to go.
All four of the provinces showed that strength of character that now resonates around the national team.
It’s an aura of toughness, almost invincibility. The players look bigger, stronger and more powerful suddenly. Chests are puffed out to the max. The skill sets of the players’ are as equally metronomic as they are full of flare.
Murray’s box kicking is as pleasing to watch for its accuracy as a Sexton 40 metre cross field kick to a salmon like Rob Kearney for an acrobatic score.
Momentum in Ireland is gathering speed and in Europe it is difficult to see who is going to stop them.
They have already threatened New Zealand’s top-ranking spot this season and will surely be after it again looking to scare them as much as a Ferrari F1 driver when they spot Lewis Hamilton in their mirrors.
Past Irish World Cup campaigns have been soured by crumbling in the quarters or final group games as perceived ‘golden generations’ floundered to Argentinian and Welsh resistance. The men in green have never even seen the semi-finals of a World Cup so to go all the way they will have to encounter unchartered waters.
There is something different about this squad though. Leadership is visible across the park. At least six of this team could be the captain of their nation and no one would argue the point. Big name players are taking accountability for their own game and the part they need to play in the team.
There aren’t any weak spots at the moment and the defence is probably a more potent weapon than their spikey attack.
The year ahead could well be an undefeated one for Ireland, culminating in the most ultimate of glories but there is one team that can beat them, as has happened in the past and that is Ireland themselves.
Photo Credit: Florian Christoph via freeforcommercialuse.org