The return of Irish Rugby and a hopeful Six Nations Win
Eight months after their previous Six Nations game, Ireland will resume their elongated campaign, as the season like no other steps up a notch.
It's a long time for Andy Farrell to have mulled over the nightmare defeat in Twickenham, but the Ireland head coach will have welcomed the chance to turn the page, as his squad returned to camp for the first time since February.
Back then, the visit of Italy to the Aviva Stadium was seen as an ideal opportunity to turn the page, and although that encounter was postponed until this weekend, Ireland will be just as eager to get back to winning ways.
Strict protocols have been put in place as the Ireland squad have created a protective bubble, which they hope will allow them to play out their remaining Six Nations game against Italy and France, before they turn their attention to the newly-created Autumn Nations Cup.
Before they do so, Ireland's full focus is on the Six Nations, where their destiny remains firmly in their own hands. Although the loss to England felt particularly damaging at the time, Farrell's men still find themselves in a situation whereby a bonus point win over Italy would see them leapfrog Scotland, France and England at the top of the table.
If Ireland manage to pick up five match points on Saturday, they will then head to Paris next weekend with the Six Nations title on the line – as unlikely as it may be, particularly in the home of a resurgent France team, another five-pointer would guarantee them the title.
It has been quite a baptism of Farrell in terms of adjusting to his new role as Ireland head coach, yet for all the difficulties of the last few months, Ireland being crowned at the Stade de France would go a long way to helping lift the sombre mood of the nation.
Farrell may be in the job almost a year now, but his time with the players has been severely limited, which has made his bedding in period even trickier. Having spent the last couple of months getting to live games again, the Ireland boss has been keeping a close eye on everyone.
There was a welcome freshness about the Six Nations squad he named, as six uncapped players were included, as well as another four who are part of the wider group. Ryan Baird, Ed Byrne, Will Connors, Shane Daly, Hugo Keenan and Jamison Gibson-Park have all played their way into contention on the back of their excellent form.
Huge excitement surrounds Baird, but an ill-timed injury picked up whilst playing for Leinster recently, means that the supremely talented 21-year old lock may have to wait a while longer for his international debut.
Further injuries in the back-three have opened the door for Leinster full-back Keenan to push his claims of winning a first cap, while Byrne, Connors and Gibson-Park have been hugely impressive for Leo Cullen's team in recent months.
Johnny Sexton retains the captaincy and will be hoping to prove his fitness in time to lead Ireland out in Dublin this weekend. It will be fascinating to see how Farrell approaches the next few weeks in terms of blooding new faces and trusting the more experienced players who have delivered in the past.
With the Six Nations crown still very much up for grabs, the expectation is that Ireland will go with two locked and loaded teams against Italy and France, before Farrell digs a little deeper into his squad for the Autumn Nations Cup.
Ireland have been drawn in Group A alongside England, Wales and Georgia, who recently appointed legendary Irish out-half David Humphreys as a High Performance Consultant.
Ordinarily, the ranking points on offer would have played a huge role in Ireland's quest to be seeded as a top team ahead of the 2023 World Cup draw which takes place in December, but changes to the system brought about by the pandemic means that Ireland's fate has already been determined in that they will be second seeds.
In theory at least, that will give Farrell more scope to work on his squad depth because although the next World Cup, due to be hosted by France, may seem like a long way off, now is the time to start the building process. That will be music to the ears of the younger guys such as Harry Byrne, Craig Casey and Fineen Wycherley, who were all named as 'development' players.
Supporters can also look forward to seeing James Lowe pulling on the green jersey soon, as the exciting Leinster winger will become Irish-qualified next month.
For all that Farrell is missing a couple of key players, most notably Tadhg Furlong, there is plenty of reason to be excited about what lies ahead for Ireland in the coming weeks.
The world has quite literally changed since they were last in action on February 23, and even though a tough schedule beckons, the players and coaching staff will relish the chance to get back into the swing of things.
It has been a long time coming, but international rugby is finally on the horizon again.
With a Six Nations title to play for, Ireland will be hoping that it was worth the wait.
Written by: Cian Tracey, Irish Independent Rugby Writer