Having suffered a bruising defeat at the hands of Scotland over the weekend, David Lynch analyses the current form of Ireland's other Six Nations rivals.
Now under the leadership of Irishman Conor O’Shea, the Italians have traditionally been viewed as Six Nations whipping boys, but they always possess the ability to pull off a shock – and Ireland will have to proceed with caution when they arrive in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico on February 11. O’Shea has said his short-term aim is to make the Azzuri more competitive and there were some encouraging signs during their autumn campaign. Although they suffered a 68-10 trouncing against the All Blacks and a embarassing two-point reversal to Tonga, the Italians’ landmark first victory over South Africa will no doubt be enough to keep Joe Schmidt’s charges on their toes.
Heading into last year’s Six Nations, Ireland had a formidable recent record against France, but ultimately had to endure their first defeat against Les Bleus in nearly five years. With home advantage in the February 25 clash, Ireland will fancy their chances, but France showed impressive form towards the end of 2016. Camille Lopez excelled as the team dismantled Samoa and narrowly lost out to the All Blacks. Although they have lost talisman Wesley Fofana for the duration of the tournament due to an Achilles’ injury, if Guy Noves’ charges maintain their recent strong level of performance at the Aviva, Ireland could be in for a huge battle.
The March 18 Aviva clash with England had (until recent events) been talked of in some quarters as a possible Grand Slam decider. It’s shaping up to be a mighty challenge for Ireland, as Eddie Jones’ boys were the form team in world rugby throughout 2016. Indeed, they now stand just four victories away from setting the world record for consecutive wins in international rugby, although they will be shorn of star man Billy Vunipola. But with Joe Schmidt’s boys will be out to prove something following their defeat against Scotland and they’ll be itching for a shot at the old enemy.