Six Nations Preview: Ireland

In the week leading up to the start of the 2016 RBS Six Nations, Craig Wright will be looking at each of the nations bidding to be crowned champions on 19 March. First up, the current holders, Ireland.

Rugby World Cup recap: Where did it all go wrong for the boys in green? A fairly comfortable progression through the group stages, being touted as a dark horse for the title and then dumped unceremoniously out of the competition by a rampant Argentina side in Cardiff. It was a sad way for their campaign to end, and something you can bet the squad will be wanting to put right in a tournament in which they’ve experience considerable success over recent years. Champions in 2014 and 2015, Joe Schmidt’s side will be looking to exorcise a fair few demons that still linger from that quarter-final defeat.

State of the Nation: Different. For the first time in a long time, Ireland will go into a Six Nations campaign without the legend that is Paul O’Connell, with the second row having retired from international rugby after the World Cup. Ulster hooker Rory Best takes his place as captain of the side in a shrewd appointment by Joe Schmidt, whilst there’s a blend of youth and experience elsewhere with the likes of Ultan Dillane and Tadhg Furlong mixing with Jamie Heaslip and Jonny Sexton. Irish fans and media are hoping for three titles in a row, but are also nervously waiting to see how the new-look squad gels.

One to watch: Stuart McCloskey. The young Ulster centre has been tearing defences apart in the Pro12 for a year now, and with Ireland suffering a few injuries in the centres, McCloskey could get his chance in this year’s tournament. As yet uncapped, McCloskey has certainly made an impression on the rugby public, having been named in Planet Rugby’s “Rookies Team of 2015” in December. Big, strong, quick and powerful, he could be a revelation in this tournament.

What they said:

Joe Schmidt: “When the coaches and management got together to decide upon a new captain, all we really did was endorse the feeling from the playing group. [Rory Best] is our most capped forward, and his leadership for Ulster has been top-class.”

Rory Best: “One thing Paulie [Paul O’Connell] did really well as captain was to not change how he approached the game. He focused on his own game first and led by example, and that’s something I’ll be looking to replicate.”

Title chances: It’ll be tough for Ireland to capture that elusive hat-trick of titles. A relatively young squad and a new captain could count against them, and they face a tricky visit to Twickenham in round three. However, it’s an exciting group of players to choose from, and three home games will boost their chances. They should definitely be in the mix, but could just be pipped at the post.

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