Ireland have earned the right to go into the Six Nations full of confidence
Cian Tracey, Rugby Writer, Irish Independent
The winds of change are blowing as the 2023 Six Nations looms large on the horizon, but in Ireland's case, a strong sense of stability has Andy Farrell's men primed to launch a major challenge.
Despite coming up just short to last year's Grand Slam winners France, Ireland (at the time of writing) have been deemed slight favourites to be crowned champions come the weekend of March 18, when England come to Dublin for what already looks like a mouth-watering showdown.
So much of that optimism around Ireland stems from what they achieved after finishing second to France.
A historic first win over the All Blacks on New Zealand soil was followed by clinching the summer series in stunning fashion, before an autumn clean sweep, including victories over two of the southern hemisphere's other three big teams, South Africa and Australia, meant Ireland headed into the new year in a very good place.
The knock-on effect of such a successful 2022 is that Farrell's side now have a target firmly on their backs, and with England and Wales expected to be much more competitive than last season's meagre showings, it promises to be yet another enthralling Six Nations.
For all that Ireland made huge strides, there is a feeling, both within and outside the squad, that there is still plenty of scope for improvement, which is a welcome position to be in, as preparations continue towards the World Cup in France later this year.
What happens in the Six Nations will not necessarily define how Ireland are set by the time September rolls around, yet it can certainly help set the tone.
With that in mind, Farrell will set lofty goals for his players, whom he knows are well capable of winning the Grand Slam, particularly when you look at the fixture list.
The odd year always means that Ireland welcome England and France to the Aviva Stadium rather than travelling away to two of the toughest away venues, Twickenham and Stade de France.
That said, Wales, now led again by a familiar face in Warren Gatland, is a much tricker opening test than it would have been a few months ago before they made the switch at the helm.
Gatland knows Welsh rugby inside-out, and while the issues are deep-rooted, the wily Kiwi looks like the ideal man to get the national team back on track.
Wales struggled under Wayne Pivac, who was replaced following a disappointing November that saw the men in red lose to Georgia at home. Considering Italy also won in Cardiff last year, the Welsh union felt they had no choice but to get Gatland back on board.
The former Ireland boss has already spoken about how much he is relishing facing Farrell's side in the Six Nations opener at the Principality Stadium on February 4. Make no mistake about it, Ireland are in for a tough challenge before they host Les Bleus at the Aviva a week later.
Those opening two tests will dictate how Ireland fare because if they can get two wins, a potential Grand Slam would then be very much on the cards. On the flip side, two defeats would seriously dent the momentum they worked so hard to build up last year.
France remain a major threat, as they look to fine-tune their game-plan ahead of a home World Cup, when the pressure on Fabien Galthié stars will be enormous.
As Ireland found out during the last Six Nations in a World Cup year (2019), when they were convincingly beaten by England at home, best laid plans can quickly be discarded.
Ireland travel to Rome on February 25 to face a rejuvenated Italian outfit. However, despite the Azzurri's obvious progress, Ireland should have enough quality to avoid what would be a major upset at Stadio Olimpico.
A two-week break will allow Farrell and his coaches to regroup and take stock of where Ireland are ahead of the March 12 trip to Murrayfield to take on a Scotland side, who they will also meet at the pool stages of the World Cup.
All roads then lead to Dublin, with the visit of England, also under new stewardship, the day after St Patrick's Day having the potential to be a huge weekend in the capital.
Like Pivac, Eddie Jones was also ushered towards the exit door following a dip last year. The outspoken Australian wasn't to everyone's taste, but you can usually rely on Jones to have his team peaking in time for the World Cup.
The RFU saw things differently and replaced Jones with his former assistant Steve Borthwick, who led Leicester Tigers to the Premiership title last season.
Although Borthwick will be given time to put his stamp on things, the clock is very much against him in terms of getting England firing on all cylinders in the Six Nations and the World Cup.
Johnny Sexton's unfortunate cheekbone injury is ill-timed, but it will likely open the door for Joey Carbery and other less experienced out-halves to get valuable game-time under their belts, while new leaders such as Garry Ringrose, Dan Sheehan and the reigning world player of the year Josh van der Flier are now emerging.
Plenty of players will come into the tournament in great form with their provinces, while Farrell will want others to step up and show him why they should be included in the World Cup squad.
With so much to play for from the off, the stakes don't get much higher, but Ireland have earned the right to go into the Six Nations full of confidence in their quest for success.