Ireland are back in Portugal again this year [file photo].
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Ireland get to work in Portugal as the marginal Six Nations favourites
Andy Farrell’s squad will spend the next week at The Campus preparing for Wales.

LAST UPDATE | Jan 26th 2023, 9:34 PM

IRELAND LANDED INTO Portugal today for what has become their annual trip to train in better weather ahead of the Six Nations. Reports suggest it wasn’t too hot today but it will be nicer than at home. 

This venture was first undertaken back in 2018 under Joe Schmidt when the Irish squad visited Spain, but they began travelling to Portugal a year later and have made it a regular fixture of their Six Nations build-up, pandemic allowing.

Ireland stays on the Denis O’Brien-owned Quinta do Lago resort in the Algarve and train at The Campus, a high performance facility that has welcomed other professional sports teams.

Andy Farrell’s squad will be in Quinta do Lago for the next week, with sunny conditions forecast and the temperature expected to peak at around 16 °C for their busy Six Nations preparation. Ireland will fly directly to Cardiff next Thursday ahead of their opening clash against Warren Gatland’s Wales on Saturday 4 February.

Farrell has brought a squad of 37 players to Portugal, with the likes of Tadhg Furlong and captain Johnny Sexton continuing their push for full fitness after recent injury issues.

Having had two head injuries in recent months, Ulster skipper Iain Henderson has been another injury concern for Ireland and would need to complete an Independent Concussion Consultant review in order to be passed fit for the Wales game, according to World Rugby’s guidelines.

Ireland are expected to provide an update on their squad on Monday, but Farrell was boosted by the return of James Lowe from New Zealand in time for the start of this Portugal camp. The Leinster wing, who has become a key figure in Ireland’s number 11 shirt, had recently returned home for family reasons.

andy-farrell Ryan Bailey / INPHO Andy Farrell pictured in Portugal last year. Ryan Bailey / INPHO / INPHO

Farrell and his coaching staff are likely to have selected their side to face Wales at this stage and the most intriguing selection calls will be in the number 12 shirt, the back row, and across the bench, with lots of competition for places in the 23-man group.

As things stand, Ireland are favourites for the Six Nations, even if only marginally so. Presumably, they have nudged ahead of France with most bookies on account of hosting the reigning Grand Slam champions in Dublin in round two. England are seen as strong contenders under new boss Steve Borthwick, although they also have to travel to face Ireland on the final weekend.

That clash with the French promises to be a thriller and there is huge motivation for Ireland given that they have yet to beat les Bleus since Farrell took over. Three defeats from three since 2020 is a record Ireland will want to put right.

Although they will be telling us about ‘one game at a time,’ there is little doubt that Ireland will be targeting their first Six Nations title since 2018. Having hit some big milestones under Farrell, including the first-ever series win in New Zealand last year, it would be a huge step for this ambitious team.

The World Cup looms in the background, of course, and Farrell’s squad have been open about aiming for glory there, but the focus over the coming weeks will solely be on the Six Nations. Success in this championship would tee Ireland up nicely for a tilt at the World Cup, but it would also be a superb achievement in its own right. Understandably, there is an obsession with World Cups in Ireland but Six Nations titles can’t be sneered at.

Their opener in two weekends’ time promises to be more nerve-wracking than might have been the case simply because Warren Gatland is now in charge of the Welsh. He won’t have had much time to implement change but we should expect a brutal battle at the very least. His overall win record at home in his previous spell with Wales was 62% and even when Ireland enjoyed victories there, it was nearly always a hell of a fight.

johnny-sexton Ryan Bailey / INPHO Johnny Sexton is expected to be fit for the Wales game [file photo]. Ryan Bailey / INPHO / INPHO

France at home a week later will be intriguing, with Ireland having lost 15-13 to Fabien Galthié’s men in Dublin in 2021 when Sexton was missing and Billy Burns started at out-half. 

The first break weekend follows before Ireland travel to Rome for their clash with Italy, a game that doesn’t sit ideally in the schedule. Fans regularly call for wholesale changes in this fixture but Italy are an ever-improving side who must be respected, while Farrell also has to ensure that his frontliners maintain match rhythm, rather than not playing for three weekends before the trip to take on Scotland on 12 March, a Sunday fixture.

After meeting Gregor Townsend’s men in Edinburgh, Ireland wrap their championship with a Paddy’s weekend clash against the English in Dublin. How sensational it would be if they’re playing for the title at a packed-out Aviva Stadium on 18 March.

As they go about their business in Portugal over the next week, the excitement will be building. The Six Nations is upon us.

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