Guinness Six Nations Championship to use AWS Analytics, Machine Learning, and Deep Learning Technologies to Revolutionize the Rugby Viewing ExperienceSix Nations Preview: Tough road ahead as Ireland bid to retain title.In some ways the 2019 Guinness Six Nations offers Joe Schmidt a shot to nothing.After three titles in five seasons, including just a third ever Grand Slam, Schmidt’s place as the best coach the team has ever had is secure.If that wasn’t enough, a first-ever away win in South Africa, a series win in Australia and the double over New Zealand means his place in the pantheon will never be questioned.
But, in the words of Donal Lenihan, the 2015 World Cup still “haunts” Schmidt.The 2014 and 2015 Six Nations champions’ squad depth was exposed by Argentina in the quarter-final and could not cope without front-line players like Paul O’Connell, Johnny Sexton and Sean O’Brien.
One can easily imagine that Schmidt vowed not to let that scenario play out again.
Ireland’s dramatic and glorious Grand Slam win last season now allows the New Zealander, who will depart for home shores after the World Cup, the leeway to build a squad to do something unprecedented in Japan, that being to get into a semi-final for the first time, or even achieve something better.
While the cliches about respect for the championship – now in its 136th year – will be rolled out and sincere, there is little doubt that Schmidt now has the tools at his disposal to be big in Japan.
There won’t be any great risks – that’s not his way – but tools must be prepared, sharpened.
The first glimpse of what that looks like in action is the selection of Robbie Henshaw at full-back for tomorrow’s game against England.
One of only two Irish players with two Grand Slams, Kearney is considered to be “a bit rusty” but it’s still a surprise that his Leinster team-mate will win just his second cap at full-back against England.
We’ll learn more about how far Schmidt will go in testing the depth of the squad when the side for Italy is named.
Joey Carbery, who moved to Munster in the summer to get game time at out-half, has only started once ahead of Sexton in a match of significance, against Australia in the first Test last year.
The question of whether or not the 23-year-old can take charge in a high-pressure international game has not been explored. It may be in Rome.
FULL LIST OF 2019 SIX NATIONS FIXTURES
Ireland have four warm-up games before the World Cup but as far as real Tests go, the five games between now and 24 March are the last remaining window to road-test the squad.
The other side of that coin is the value of building an ‘always-be-winning’ mentality, as England did in 2003, the year they became the only northern hemisphere side to win the World Cup.
All that just means that Schmidt’s team selections over the next seven weeks will be closely monitored, more so when all report fit and ready for duty.
None of the nine teams to have claimed a Grand Slam since France in 1997 have managed to repeat the feat the following year. As terrible a cliche as it is, the holders have a target on their back: everyone loves to have a shot at the champ.
However he avoids dealing with questions about expectations, there can be no dodging how hard it will be to deliver another title.
Ireland might be forward-looking but you can bet your bottom dollar that Eddie Jones will be using the manner of last March’s defeat in Twickenham to motivate his troops.
It was arguably the best performance of the Schmidt era and England were completely overrun in the first half in front of their own fans. Expect that frustration to be used to effect in Dublin tomorrow afternoon.
The visitors – who had a 17-game winning streak ended the last time they were in town – won just six of 12 games last season and are hampered by injuries to Ben Te’o and Brad Shields.
“We never think we’re not better than the opposition,” said Jones, who has plans of his own to win a third Six Nations title.
Scotland, Ireland’s second opponents, come into the tournament boosted by the fortunes of their two club sides, who both made the last eight of the Heineken Champions Cup.
“Cohesion is very important in international rugby. 70-75% of our players come from Glasgow and Edinburgh so we are going to aim to build on what they are doing well,” said Gregor Townsend, whose injury-hit team host Italy tomorrow.
Ireland never take the Scots lightly but regularly come a cropper in Murrayfield. Last year Ireland won by 20 points in Dublin but the visitors butchered at least two excellent chances to forge a lead. That can’t be forgotten.
Conor O’Shea is at pains to point out that the Italian job is a work in progress and that is most evident in how Treviso are doing in the Pro14.
As far as the French go, Bernard Jackman reckons that they are building a team for the World Cup in 2023. They have named a squad with five uncapped players for the Six Nations but what awaits Ireland in week four is anyone’s guess.
Many are predicting that the championship could come down to the Wales v Ireland game on 16 March.
Warren Gatland’s side are on a nine-game winning run.
The former Ireland boss, who also leaves his job after the World Cup, said: “If we can win that first game in Paris, it will give us a really good chance of winning the Six Nations.”
Coaches don’t usually speak like that in public so at the least it’s refreshing to hear.
This year’s competition involves three of the world’s top four teams and the November internationals saw northern hemisphere wins over New Zealand, South African, Australia and Argentina.
“I do think that all the teams are incredibly close,” said Schmidt of this year’s competition.
“And I know that we might be two, [Wales] are three, England are four and we could even finish like that with France on top or Scotland and Italy.”
Follow Ireland v England (4.45pm) via our liveblog on RTÉ.ie/sport and the News Now app, or listen to live national radio commentary on RTÉ Radio 1’s Saturday Sport