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Outstanding Ireland march on with the Grand Slam now firmly in sight

PICTURE: Cian Tracey, Rugby Writer, Irish Independent

Cian Tracey, Rugby Writer, Irish Independent

Two wins from two. Ten points from a possible ten. As starts to a Six Nations campaign go, it doesn’t get any better. 

Add in the fact that Ireland have dethroned the Grand Slam champions, and considering the quality of rugby they played in beating both France and Wales, the overall picture looks all the rosier. 

After an action-packed opening fortnight, the majority of the Ireland players were given a well-earned rest for a few days before they reconvened at the end of last week to begin preparing for their next task, which is Italy in Rome. 

As if to underline the healthy state of Irish rugby at the moment, Andy Farrell’s men trained against the Ireland U-20s, who themselves are on course to win a Grand Slam, having been just as impressive in seeing off Wales and France in their opening two rounds. 

Competition for places within the Ireland squad is already fierce as the talent pool continues to grow, and with several of the young U-20s stars getting a chance to impress, it was a timely reminder of the quality coming through the ranks. 

On paper at least, everything appears to be going according to plan for Ireland, yet the level of disruption that the squad has been hit with, mainly through injuries to key players, has meant that they have not had it all their own way, even before they stepped onto the pitch. 

However, Farrell has made a point of embracing the chaos, and as much as the Ireland head coach has done so publicly, he has adopted a similar mantra behind the scenes.  

In the past, Ireland have been knocked off course by things out of their control, but there is a freshness about this regime that has meant even without important front-liners, others have stepped up to the mark and performed remarkably well. 

That all stems from the positivity that Farrell has instilled, with the emphatic response from his players further reiterating that they have all bought into his way of thinking. 

After a memorable 2022, during which Ireland won a Triple Crown, a historic series in New Zealand, and saw off the current world champions South Africa, as well as Australia last November, the big question was: could Ireland back it up and kick on again this year? 

Judging on the evidence we have seen so far, the answer is a resounding yes, and while the World Cup, which will take place in France later this year, looms large on the horizon, we should acknowledge and appreciate what Ireland are achieving in the here and now. 

To have been without Tadhg Furlong, Jamison Gibson-Park and Robbie Henshaw for both games was a major blow, and then to lose Dan Sheehan after a towering performance in Cardiff, made life even more difficult, yet Ireland haven’t missed a beat. 

Finlay Bealham has been outstanding in the wins over Wales and France, as the Connacht prop has seamlessly stepped into Furlong’s shoes and delivered when his team needed him most. 

Not only has Bealham held his own at scrum time, but he also looks far more comfortable in Ireland’s fluid attacking system, where forwards are expected to link with the backs, as the tighthead did so brilliantly to help create Hugo Keenan’s stunning training ground move try against France. 

Keenan, like his Leinster team-mate Caelan Doris has taken his already ultra-consistent performances to a new level this year, which has been duly rewarded by the full-back signing his first central contract with the IRFU until the summer of 2026 at least. 

A calming presence in the back-field, Keenan’s team-mates feed off his assuredness, with Doris emerging as an early contender to take Josh van der Flier’s player of the year title from him. 

There is a long way to go before that may happen, but Doris is arguably the most in-form player in the world right now. The all-action No 8 delivered a performance for the ages in helping Ireland end France’s record 14 game winning run by winning what was a record 13th consecutive game at the Aviva Stadium. 

Anyone who was lucky enough to have attended that previous epic encounter won’t be forgetting it in a hurry.  

As their record suggests, Ireland have become extremely tough to beat at their Dublin home, but mindful that their next two games are in Rome and Edinburgh, they can ill-afford to take their eye off the ball now. 

Italy are a rapidly improving force, with their star Ange Capuozzo regularly lighting it up, but that said, Ireland should have enough quality to ensure that they make it three from three at the Stadio Olimpico. 

After another break-week, Farrell’s side will then turn their attention to the trip to Murrayfield to take on a Scotland team full of confidence having won their opening two Six Nations matches for the first time since Italy joined the Championship in 2000. 

Scotland face a tricky test at the Stade de France before they host Ireland in what is already shaping up to be a cracker. 

All roads then lead to Dublin on St Patrick’s weekend, with England potentially arriving looking to spoil the party. With Eddie Jones now gone, England are in-flux under new head coach Steve Borthwick, but they remain a major threat not to be taken lightly. 

If Ireland can get through the next two games with their 100pc winning record still intact, then that final weekend has all the makings of being a truly special occasion in the capital. 

Ireland have earned the right to dare to dream about winning their first title and their first Grand Slam since 2018, with supporters believing that it’s there for them. 

Plenty of pitfalls lie ahead before that dream can become a reality but having made such a positive start to the Six Nations, Ireland march on with a shot at glory now firmly in sight. 

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