Looking Back on 2022
Ireland will kick off this year’s Guinness Six Nations as the number one ranked Test side in the world after an outstanding 2022 which included a Triple Crown, a first-ever victory in New Zealand against the All Blacks (x2) and an Autumn Nations Series clean sweep.
Much has been made of Ireland’s supposed tendency to fall off in Rugby World Cup years though, and while it’s true that they’ve underachieved at World Cups in recent times, their Six Nations win rate is eight percentage points higher in World Cup years (72%) than non-World Cup years (64%).
There has been a gradual improvement in Ireland’s Six Nations performances since Head Coach Andy Farrell took charge of the side after the 2019 RWC, with their total points scoredand points difference both increasing year on year since then. While the main prize may have eluded Farrell so far, with Ireland’s last Six Nations title having come under Joe Schmidt in 2018, he’ll quietly fancy his side’s chances this year.
Ireland opted to attack the blindside more frequently than any other Tier 1 side in Test rugby in 2022 (14%) and kept the ball within 10 metres of their previous ruck from 54% of their phases, the second-highest rate of any team last year. This, coupled with their extraordinary ability to recycle the ball quickly – their average attacking ruck speed of 2.9 seconds was by far the fastest of any side in last year’s Six Nations – means that they’re able to draw in the opposition before exploiting the space left out wide.
Generally, Ireland haven’t kicked any more or less than any other Tier 1 side, with their 24.7 kicks in play per game being exactly on the average for all teams last year. But when they’ve opted to kick, they’ve done so to great effect, executing at least three times as many 50/22 kicks as any other side in 2022 (six). This in turn has allowed them to exercise control over lineouts in the opposition’s half of the pitch.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Ireland dominated the set-piece battle in last year’s Six Nations, recording both the highest lineout (94%) and scrum (96%) success rates of any side in the Championship, in addition to stealing the most opposition lineouts of any team (10). This allowed them the platform to dictate the tempo of games and register the most possession (56%) and territory (57%) of any team in the 2022 campaign. However, they’ve struggled after losing the ball, with all four of the tries they conceded in last year’s Championship having come off the back of opposition counter attacks.
That’s a worry for the boys in green, particularly as they also conceded more turnovers per game than any other Six Nations side in Test rugby in 2022 (15.3).
Farrell’s men are also capable of piercing opposition defences with great regularity, making more line breaks per game than any other Tier 1 nation in Test rugby in 2022 (5.2).
However, only 35% of their breaks resulted in a try – the second-lowest rate of any side – and they will need to be more ruthless if they wish to go one step further than last year and lift the 2023 Six Nations crown.
Saying that fly-half Jonathan Sexton is Ireland’s key player may make it seem as though we’re over a decade late to the party, but the truth is that his importance to this Irish side has only increased as the years have gone by, with almost everything Ireland do going through their talismanic captain.
Having scored 531 points so far, Sexton needs just 27 more to become the outright all-time leading points-scorer in the Guinness Six Nations and surpass the man from whom he inherited Ireland’s number 10 shirt, Ronan O’Gara (557).
This is a star-studded Ireland squad though. So much so that Sexton isn’t even the only player in the squad to have won the coveted World Rugby Player of the Year award, with Josh van der Flier adding his name to the honour roll after a spectacular 2022 in which he finished as Ireland’s leading try scorer (four) and Tier 1 Test rugby’s most prolific tackler (159).
Ireland’s Six Nations 2023 Fixtures:
4 February: Wales v Ireland – Principality Stadium, Cardiff
11 February: Ireland v France – Aviva Stadium, Dublin
25 February: Italy v Ireland – Stadio Olimpico, Rome
12 March: Scotland v Ireland – Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh
18 March: Ireland v England – Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Ireland Six Nations 2023 Squad (as of 19 Jan):
Forwards: Ryan Baird, Finlay Bealham, Tadhg Beirne, Jack Conan, Gavin Coombes, Caelan Doris, Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy, Iain Henderson, Rob Herring, Ronan Kelleher, Dave Kilcoyne, Joe McCarthy, Peter O’Mahony, Tom O’Toole, Andrew Porter, Cian Prendergast, James Ryan, Dan Sheehan, Josh van der Flier.
Backs: Bundee Aki, Ross Byrne, Craig Casey, Jack Crowley, Keith Earls, Jamison Gibson Park, Mack Hansen, Hugo Keenan, Jordan Larmour, James Lowe, Stuart McCloskey, Conor Murray, Jimmy O’Brien, Jamie Osborne, Garry Ringrose, Johnny Sexton, Jacob Stockdale.
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