With other home nations suffering disappointing results since the 2012 Six Nations, Ireland’s difficult year has been somewhat overlooked. They did not gain a win – a non-capped 53-0 win over Fiji apart – until easing past Argentina last month, with some chastening southern hemisphere experiences eroding confidence.
The nadir of a 3-0 June defeat in New Zealand was a record 60-0 reverse that made the preceding three-point defeat a distant memory. A strong 2013 Six Nations campaign seemed unlikely at that point, with the team’s defensive problems seemingly unsolved.
Ireland were the top points and try scorers in this year’s tournament, so it is easy to see where their problems laid. A limp effort in the breakdown in the All Blacks hammering at Hamilton suggested Declan Kidney and his coaching team had plenty of work to do with the defence and there were encouraging signs in the 16-12 defeat by South Africa last month.
Despite a brave rearguard action, a nine-point lead could not be protected, but with key men Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Rory Best absent through injury, some optimism was at least rediscovered.
Debutants David Kilcoyne, Iain Henderson and New Zealand-born Michael Bent – a controversial selection – all made a decent impression. O’Connell and Stephen Ferris are unlikely to be fit for the tournament opener against Wales, so the new faces need to integrate quickly.
Ireland and Wales have had some memorable Six Nations clashes in recent years and that curtain-raiser could set the victor on the road to a title-challenging campaign. The loser will be left wondering when their slump will end.