The growing confidence around Ireland's Six Nations chances is justified
With key players in form and after an impressive November series, Ireland are in fine shape.

Updated at 21.15

JOE SCHMIDT MAY not like it one bit, but the consensus is growing that Ireland will win this Six Nations.

England remain the favourites with the bookies and, as Schmidt pointed out at last week’s championship launch, those canny businesspeople very rarely get it wrong.

The optimism that has grown around Ireland in recent times is easy to understand, however, and ahead of their visit to Paris this weekend to take on Jacques Brunel’s France, there are several reasons to be positive about their chances of a first title since 2015.

Joe Schmidt Oisin Keniry / INPHO Schmidt laughed off Eddie Jones' suggestion Ireland are Six Nations favourites. Oisin Keniry / INPHO / INPHO

Clearly, the provincial form of Leinster, Connacht and Munster will feed into this Six Nations, but the most recent evidence from Ireland themselves was impressive.

While South Africa and Argentina proved to be slightly disappointing opposition in November, Ireland were as sharp as they have been for some years.

All the pillars of Joe Schmidt’s successes were in excellent working order in November, with the ruck detail and kicking game standing out and Andy Farrell’s defence making aggressive gains.

Ireland’s set-piece strike plays were as crisp as they have been for years, while the trend of Schmidt’s forwards accurately and intelligently passing the ball in phase play – rather than always carrying into contact – was a continuation of the growth of their attacking game.

There were wholesale changes for Ireland before the narrow win against an exciting Fiji team, but less experienced players stood up well under pressure in that game and that exposure added to the depth in Ireland’s squad.

At all times in November, Ireland displayed a focused understanding of exactly what was required within their ‘roles’ – be that in running a violent decoy line, clearing out a specific ruck within a pre-planned play or working hard to get around the corner and set the defensive line. Simply put, the fine details of Ireland’s play were better than they had been during the last two Six Nations campaigns.

Ireland’s key men performed well in November and the majority of them carried that form back to their provinces and now return for the Six Nations in a good place.

Johnny Sexton has been brilliant all season and is arguably the best out-half in the Six Nations, while Conor Murray could be considered the same in the scrum-half position.

Robbie Henshaw Bryan Keane / INPHO Henshaw is in fine form. Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

Robbie Henshaw’s fine decision-making, insatiable work rate and athletic ability put him among the best midfielders in the championship, while Tadhg Furlong’s set-piece power and ball-handling skills, coupled with his explosive ball-carrying and mobility, make him a real standout at tighthead.

Keith Earls’ performances on the left wing for Munster – he did it for Ireland last summer too – make him a threat, while other men such as Fergus McFadden, Ultan Dillane and Jordan Larmour bring form into Ireland’s camp to keep pressure on the perceived front-liners.

While Schmidt has underlined that this is his youngest Ireland squad yet for a Six Nations, there is good Test experience in most areas of the pitch, including fullback Rob Kearney, Henshaw in midfield, the halfbacks, captain Rory Best at hooker, Devin Toner in the second row and Peter O’Mahony in the back row.

Ireland’s injury profile is not the worst either, although the likes of Sean O’Brien, Garry Ringrose, Jamie Heaslip and Jared Payne would have been involved if not for being sidelined.

O’Brien is hopeful of getting back for the latter stages of the Six Nations but in his previous absences, Jordi Murphy and Josh van der Flier have shown they can fill his shoes comfortably against the best in the world, while Dan Leavy looks like he could be a real breakout for Ireland if given opportunities.

Ireland’s run of fixtures appears to be quite negotiable too.

While France are always an incredibly demanding task physically and will once again leave Ireland with sore bodies, the fact that they have only recently changed coaching teams means they have had little chance to establish the basic structures that are important in Test rugby.

Ireland have a decent recent record against the French, aside from their underperformance in Paris in 2016 – when Maxime Médard’s try proved to be the difference.

CJ Stander dejected after the game Dan Sheridan / INPHO Ireland were poor in Paris two years ago. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Furlong had a tough outing in the scrum that day too, but Ireland look much better equipped to handle the challenge now, even with rain showers currently forecast for Saturday.

Three home games follow for Ireland and, whatever about the improvement of Scotland and the bite that Wales will bring, if Schmidt’s men are serious about regaining silverware they are prime winning opportunities.

The dream for Irish and English fans is that everything will come down to their final-day meeting at Twickenham on 17 March and it’s not impossible to imagine it transpiring that way.

Having denied Eddie Jones’ side a Grand Slam on the final day last year, it would be a tasty contest for Ireland if it proves to be the decider.

England would hope to have Billy Vunipola available by then, but last year showed the folly of rushing a player – even one as important as the number eight – back for a massive game. Jones will have learned from that experience.

Mid-March seems a lifetime away now, but as we head into the first week of the 2018 Six Nations the growing confidence around Ireland is certainly justified.

- This article was updated at 7.28am on 30 January to correct ‘weekend’s’ to ‘week’s’ and ‘in’ to ‘it’ in the second paragraph.

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