The 2020 Six Nations Championship kicks off on February 1st with Wales hosting Italy at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff before Ireland and Scotland meet at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. It’s almost two years since Ireland won the Grand Slam at the Six Nations and a lot has happened since then. In Six Nations odds and betting, you’ll currently find Ireland behind England as favourites. With a new coach at the helm, can they overcome the disappointment of Japan and the 2019 Rugby World Cup to come back stronger and take the northern hemisphere by storm?
2018 was a really good year for Ireland. After winning the Six Nations’ Grand Slam, they moved back to second in the world rankings. In June, the squad travelled to Australia to face the Wallabies in a three-match test series. After losing the first test 18-9, Joe Schmidt’s side went on to win the second and third matches to win the series 2-1 overall. The first win to level the series score was Ireland’s first win against Australia on their ground since 1979. In the Autumn International, Ireland cemented their place as the world’s number two side by beating the All-Blacks in Dublin – and the victory was very much deserved. The squad were brimming with confidence and looking as though they’d be unstoppable.
Going into the World Cup though, things took a turn. At the end of 2018, many believed they’d be among the favourites for the Web Ellis Cup in Japan, but for a shocking turn in form. Nobody could have predicted that this same unbeaten squad could collapse in as dramatic fashion as they did. It began with the 2019 Six Nations, in which Ireland finished third. A loss in their opening game to England was followed up with wins over Scotland, Italy and France. But an abject display in their final match against Wales not only handed the Dragons the Grand Slam, but the 25-7 scoreline was Wales’ biggest margin of victory over Ireland since 1976.
In their World Cup warm-up matches, Ireland suffered another hammering defeat, this time at the hands of England at Twickenham. Former captain Rory Best admits complacency set in, but there were also issues behind the scenes with coaches creating “too much tension” in the camp leading up to games. He said: “You don’t go from 2018 (Six Nations champions, series win in Australia, unbeaten in November) to 2019 (five defeats) without that happening.”
“After that England defeat, we sat down with Joe and said ‘Listen, we trust you implicitly. We know you will get the tactics right. But on the flip side you are going to have to trust us that from Captain’s Run onwards to let us build in our own way.’”
At the World Cup, Ireland finished runners-up in Pool A to surprise group winners and hosts, Japan. Winning four of their five pool matches, the only defeat came at the hand of the Cherry Blossoms. They faced New Zealand in the quarter-finals, the team that they had beaten the year previous, but succumbed to a 46-14 defeat in Tokyo. The match was all but over at half time with the All-Blacks holding a 22-0 lead, but they continued to be relentless in the second half, going on to score seven tries. It meant that Ireland’s World Cup campaign was deemed a failure and hardly a fitting finale for Schmidt’s tenure as head coach.
New head coach Andy Farrell faces somewhat of a dilemma ahead of the Six Nations. Does he look to the squad that crashed out of the World Cup, or is it time to tear up the team sheet and give some of the domestic form players a chance? It’s believed that Johnny Sexton should be fit to start Ireland’s opening game, which would be a massive boost. But there are plenty of prospects playing for Leinster that could receive call-ups. Dropping to fifth in the world rankings has surely not done anything for confidence and while changes are needed, it seems Ireland have a long way to go to get back to the level they were at last year.