What a more buoyant side has done in the last three seasons is close the gap on the Big Two — England and France — and open the gap on Scotland, Wales and Italy. In 2002, Ireland were emphatically the best of the rest as France saw off England for the title, but there is now optimism that the Anglo-French hegemony could be seriously threatened.
Significantly, Ireland’s two home games, on March 8 and March 30, are against France and England, and home advantage makes a massive difference. So if results on the road are good, then it’s possible that everything could be on the line for that clash against England at the end of March.
Wins over reigning world champions Australia, and Argentina at the end of last year, have generated the current feel-good factor. Equally, the performances of Munster and Leinster in reaching the quarterfinals of the European Cup once again have boosted Irish rugby’s stock. Factor in the class of Brian O’Driscoll, the emerging talent of Peter Stringer and a new self-belief, then the future looks decidedly bright.
What has been forgotten, however, is that captain and talisman Keith Wood, is currently injured and will almost certainly miss the first three games of the competition. Paul O’Connell and David Wallace are also recuperating, so the Irish will hardly be at full strength. Then there’s the not insignificant statistic that Ireland haven’t beaten Scotland in Edinburgh since 1985. First match? Scotland in Edinburgh on Sunday.
This Ireland team will insist that history means nothing, and that records are there to be broken, and they’ll be right. But the doubts that have undone their predecessors will surely gnaw away during the build-up. The right start against Scotland, and the Irish could be playing for glory against England in seven weeks. A defeat, and the championship will be over before it’s started.