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Can Ireland secure back-to-back Grand Slams and a World Cup triumph?

Ben Darvill 28 Jan 2019

Can Ireland secure back-to-back Six Nations triumphs in preparation for the 2019 World cup in Japan, and will they be the side that finally stop New Zealand's dominance of the biggest tournament in rugby? 

Of all of the teams in the Six Nations this year, Ireland are surely the best placed to secure an incredible double in the Six Nations and the World Cup, with the two biggest competitions in rugby coinciding perfectly to bring a feast of action that will have every rugby fan across the planet salivating at the prospect of a few months worth of international action. With this in mind, we have compiled our reasoning as to why we think Ireland can dominate the Six Nations for the second year in the row, and turn that into a World Cup success in the months to come.

READ MORE: 5 best outright bets for the 2019 Six Nations 

READ MORE: Why England can dominate the Six Nations and win the World Cup 

READ MORE: Are Wales the real deal this year in the Six Nations and the World Cup? 

READ MORE: Why France, Scotland and Italy face another year of pain in the Six Nations and World Cup 

A near perfect 2018

Jonathan Sexton of Ireland hits THAT drop-goal. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

It honestly could not have gotten much better for Ireland in 2018 as they secured a near-perfect 2018. To think, this all began with the slimmest of wins over France at the start of February last year as Ireland needed a late, long-range drop goal from Johnny Sexton that squeezed over to give the Irish a 15-13 win over the French. Their next big test came in the form of the visiting Welsh, who they beat 37-27 in a game that was closer than the scoreline suggests, before they dispatched Scotland 28-8 at the Aviva Stadium to set up a chance to secure a Grand Slam in England, which they did with aplomb. While the scoreline was only 24-15, they completely outplayed the home side, and anything but an Irish win would have been a travesty in the end. 

26 points from five games came from five wins and three bonus points as they dominated Europe in an exceptional show of strength that will have every other side in Europe hugely worried coming into the new season.  

Next, Ireland were presented with the chance to gain victory in Australia, which they took. Australia won the first Test to perhaps expose a slight chink in Ireland’s armour, but the tourists hit back immediately as they won 26-21 and 20-16 to win 2-1 in the three-match series. The tour itself reinforced Ireland’s power as few European sides go to Australia and win a series, no matter how well a side is playing. 

Next came their autumn internationals, with wins over Italy, Argentina and the USA seeming inconsequential in comparison to their victory over New Zealand on November 17th. It was Jacob Stockdale’s chip and chase that won the match for the Irish, but the collective effort of the side was enormous as they defended like warriors to reinforce that they are arguably the best side in the world right now, on a par with New Zealand at least. 

Nothing can be taken for granted in a World Cup year, but when a side wins 11 out of 12 games including away victories over England and then Australia twice before beating the world champions should not be underestimated, and the fact that they were able to secure a near perfect 2018 will give them hope of completing a perfect 2019.

Joe Schmidt and Johnny Sexton 

Jonathan Sexton (R) and Joe Schmidt (L). (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Joe Schmidt may not have as much international experience as the likes of Eddie Jones and Warren Gatland, with the two boasting a glut of time on the biggest stage, but he has settled into his role at the top of the Irish tree seamlessly. Starting out as an assistant coach at the Bay of Plenty in 2003, Schmidt moved onto the same role with both the Blues and Clermont before becoming the manager of Leinster between 2010-13, with his exploits with the Irish behemoths enough to earn him the call for the Ireland job. Schmidt took over from Declan Kidney after the Irish had finished in fifth in the Six Nations, with a sole win over Wales in their first game followed by three defeats and one draw. They were spared the wooden spoon by the fact their points difference was -9 in comparison to France’s -18. While avoiding the wooden spoon was better than taking it, the failure of the Irish to ever really get going was not good enough for the side, and something had to change. 

Since his tenure began back in 2013, Schmidt has taken Ireland forward with each year that has passed, and they now sit in second in the world rankings, arguably only behind New Zealand in the table alone. A special mention must go to former-England defence coach Andy Farrell, who has taken on the role at Ireland and displayed an incredible aptitude for the game, with Ireland’s defence arguably the best in the world. This was on show most prominently in that famous win over New Zealand, as Ireland battled incredibly hard across the game and, with the All Blacks still able to clinch a draw in the match with a converted try, the Irish did not falter as they forced their opponents into a mistake that secured the win, this wall-like defence would have had Farrell punching the air in delight. Schmidt’s job has been a hugely impressive one then as, along with recruiting Farrell recently, he has dealt well with losing the giants of Irish rugby like Brian O’Driscoll, Jamie Heaslip, Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell, and he has replaced them with influential stars like Johnny Sexton, Connor Murray and Rory Best, who lead the team forward with massive displays from the boot, ruck and scrum respectively, and it is the form of the former that is really taking this team to new heights.

Sexton has been one of the best place-kickers in the game for years, but in the last year or so he has taken his game up four or five levels, and he was awarded for his evolution as he was crowned the World Player of the Year as he beat off competition from New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett and Rieko Ioane, and South Africa’s Faf de Klerk and Malcolm Marx to become the first European winner of the award since Thierry Dusautoir of France back in 2011, breaking a run of six-straight years in which a New Zealand player had won the award. Making this achievement even more impressive was the fact that Sexton went up against Barrett, who had won the awards for the past two years in a row and also plays at fly-half, and beat him, cementing his place as the best number 10, or for 2018 anyway. 

It seems as though his inexorable rise to the top started with that drop goal against France in February to win the game for Ireland, and he just gotten better and better. Controlling matches against Wales, England, Australia and New Zealand, Sexton has been able to pin the opposition back with accurate kicks, rack up points from the tee with ease and open up defences with a little step, a deft grubber or an exceptional off-load and, most importantly, he has been the one driving the side forward with his incredible appetite for the game and winning. 

If Sexton can continue the sort of form he displayed in 2018, it is difficult to see how anyone can stop Ireland from dominating the world in 2019. 

A winning mentality 

Jacob Stockdale of Ireland celebrates after scoring a try against New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Ireland became serial winners in 2018 as they managed to maintain their incredibly impressive run right the across the year. Once again, this was best summed up in their opening match of the year as they squeezed past France at the State de France courtesy of a long-range Sexton drop goal. They were pushed by Wales at the Aviva Stadium, but they once again showed their class to keep their opponents at arm’s length, while they won at Twickenham to clinch the Grand Slam, with a win over England in their own backyard never easy no matter how poorly they are playing. 

In Australia in the summer, Ireland were consigned to their first defeat of the year and many wondered whether the cracks were starting the appear, with northern-hemisphere dominance not always transferring onto the world stage. However, the Irish bounced back immediately with two wins in a row to clinch a huge series win in Australia, earmarking themselves as potential world beaters yet again. 

Against New Zealand too, they were in supreme form to clinch a win that match as they ground out a result through their incredibly impressive defending and the individual brilliance of Stockdale to kick and collect and then dab down for the winner. Schmidt’s men have been steadily improving over the last few years and while it seemed as though England would be the most-likely threat to New Zealand’s crown in 2019, Ireland have emerged as the major contenders, and with their win at the end of last year over the All Blacks, it would take a brave man to bet against them. More importantly than their ability to win with a big scoreline is their penchant for grinding a game out and winning ugly where necessary, with the best teams in the world incredibly difficult to beat whether they are in top form or not. 

Will 2019 be the year for Ireland to assert their dominance across the globe, and will they be the side to displace New Zealand from top spot with a Six Nations and World Cup triumph? 

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Can Ireland secure back-to-back Grand Slams and a World Cup triumph?

Ireland head into 2019 as the best side in Europe and arguably the strongest side in the world right now, and they will be targeting another Six Nations triumph before they turn their attention to the World Cup in Japan

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