With two wins on the road, over Scotland and Italy, the Irish now take on the two reigning champions France and England at Lansdowne Road. Home advantage is critical here. Play France and England in their own backyards and the chances of success are less than promising, but play them in Dublin and the odds shorten dramatically.
Of course, there’s the not irrelevant matter of a visit to Cardiff in between the two high-profile games. However, Ireland’s record in recent years in the Welsh capital is good and with Wales going through a crisis of confidence, the prospects of three more victories to add to the two already in the bag are more than reasonable. And whisper it: the Irish could be celebrating a first championship grand slam in more than 50 years.
The current side has developed to such a level that they have to cope with the favorites’ tag against France on Saturday. With the French deprived of their inspirational captain, Fabien Galthie, through injury, they will be fielding an inexperienced back line with an average age of just over 22.
Traditionally, France have dismantled the Irish with their flair and running skills, but this time the home team has a clear advantage behind the scrum. For once, the French are not able to boast players of the skill and pace of Brian O’Driscoll and Denis Hickie, while the vital combination of Peter Stringer and David Humphreys at halfback is also superior to the visitors.
Yet again, O’Driscoll has to shoulder a heavy burden in the absence of the injured Keith Wood. However, he has proven himself against the French on several occasions, most notably when he scored a memorable hat trick of tries in Paris in 2000.
If Ireland appear stronger in the backs, where Humphreys will hold his place despite the fact that Ronan O’Gara has now recovered from injury, it will be more evenly matched in the forwards. The Leinster captain, Reggie Corrigan, will miss the remainder of the Six Nations after breaking a bone in his hand, and his deputy, Marcus Horan, is a much less seasoned campaigner.
France have the best back row in world rugby in Olivier Magne, Serge Betsen and Imanol Harinordoquy, and there are other experienced internationals in Fabien Pelous and Raphael Ibanez. So whichever side gains the upper hand in the forwards will win.
If everything about this game on the pitch flies in the face of tradition, then so too does Ireland being branded as certain winners. How the players cope with the level of expectation will also have a significant bearing on the outcome. But if the Irish win, and win again in Wales, it would set up a mouthwatering showdown with England at Lansdowne Road on March 30 for the grand slam.
Once it was a dream. Now it’s within touching distance.