Six Nations preview: Autumn achievements have heightened expectations for Ireland
GUINNESS SIX NATIONS
IRELAND will go into this year's Guinness Six Nations on somewhat of a crest of a wave. Eight wins on the bounce and playing a brand of rugby that has at long last got the crowd on the edge of their seats, there is renewed optimism on that Andy Farrell's class of 2022 can finish top of the tree come mid-March.
While wins over Japan and Argentina may not have set the pluses racing, the autumn victory over New Zealand has taken expectation to new levels.
Ireland somewhat caught everyone on the hop with their new brand of rugby. Confrontational in defence to quick, hard running in attack.
The aim now for Farrell and his staff is to find ways to keep improving from game to game.
Speaking at the tournament launch, Farrell says that above many things, honesty is key to growth and improvement.
"Well, it's very easy to find scope for growth. You can look at all areas of your game and you'll always dissect it. If you dissect it properly and be honest with yourself, you'll see how you can do things better," said Farrell.
But the head coach also warned that even though Ireland remain unbeaten in eight tests, performances are still far from the levels he demands.
"In the scheme of things, you can look at the results and think everything went swimmingly, but in reality, it didn't.
"The week after the Japan game or the All-Blacks game, they were irrelevant. We're onto the next thing, analysing and trying to get better so this is no different.
"This is the start of a new competition that means a lot to all the nations. We know that we gotta be improving constantly to be in with a chance," continued Farrell.
But despite those warnings, Farrell makes no secret of where he wants to see Ireland finish at the end of the tournament.
"I don't know anyone who doesn't want to finish first. We're no different to every other team in the competition in that regard.
"But I think ultimately, we want to kick on as a group, we want to kick on in the way we play the games, we want to push new boundaries for ourselves.
"We want to play every game as quick as we can and so does every other team.
"As I always say, each game takes its own course and certainly when you try and predict how things are going to go in the Six Nations, you come away with egg on your face trying to predict it, as a punter, never mind being a coach.
"There are so many variables aren't there? Whether it be momentum, red cards, bonus points etc, the weather, you've got to be adaptable and roll with the punches because that's what the Six Nations is, it's a competition that is like no other."
PRE-TOURNAMENT favourites France also enjoyed an historic win over New Zealand. Their 40-25 victory last November was their first in Paris since 1973. They can also look forward to hosting both England and Ireland over the coming weeks which no doubt gives the French a massive advantage.
For England, who Ireland visit on March 12, Eddie Jones's side seem to be at a crossroads as he has more than one eye on the next World Cup in 2023. The long-awaited introduction to the international game of Marcus Smith (above) also suggests that Jones may be adopting a different approach this term.
Scotland again will look to their Lions, Hamish Watson and Stuart Hogg to help take them to the next level.
Gregor Townsend's side have for far too long been mentioned as tournament dark horses, but they have never been able to put together a run of wins to make them serious contenders.
An opening day win over England will tell us if lessons have been learnt.
Unexpectedly, defending champions Wales aren't among the frontrunners for honours in this year's competition.
As the local game continues to be embroiled in controversy, the national team has had to put up with a growing number of absentees, most notably Alun Wyn Jones.
But the Six Nations always seems to galvanise the Welsh so don't be surprised if they were to leave Dublin with a win.
If they don't, it could be a long tournament for Wayne Pivac's side.
Italy's future in the competition continues to be a source of much debate. They are without a championship win since 2015 and 2022 looks like being another tough campaign for the Azzurri.
Ulster's recent form in the European Champions Cup has saw the northern province being awarded with eight call ups.
But in a squad and starting line-up dominated by Leinster players, who from up north has a chance of breaking into the matchday squad?
65 caps and a big game player. Simply, if he's fit, he starts.
Pace to burn, athletic and strong as an ox. Could be the player to light up this year's championship.
No longer first choice and faces a battle with Dan Sheehan to be number two. Toss of a coin to see who makes the replacements.
Has the ability to side step someone inside a telephone box. Like Baloucoune, could be a player who could take the championship by storm. But for uncapped Lowry it will probably be from the bench.
His direct running has been a big feature of Ulster's play this season. Faces tough competition in the Irish centre but not far away from a breakthrough.
Another Ulster player in a fascinating battle. This time with Connacht's Finlay Bealham as understudy to Tadhg Furlong.
The Irish backrow is littered with world class talent, but as he showed against Argentina in the autumn, he's more than capable whenever called upon.
Somewhat a surprise call up for the second row. Five years since his last involvement and just reward for his consistent showings for Ulster this season.