Rugby is not a popular sport in Ireland. It ranks well below soccer, Gaelic football, and hurling both in terms of support and participation. At club level, it is confined to Limerick city, certain areas of Dublin around the fee-paying schools, and the occasional pocket around the country. Yet at this time of year, the nation starts talking about rucks, mauls, lock-forwards, three-quarters, and yes, the ball-handling skills of hookers. The 6-Nations is about to start, and Ireland has its best chance of outright success in several decades. Let's take a closer look at this competition in a sport played by men with odd-shaped balls.
Big mistake there, using up most of my rugby puns in the first paragraph, so I'll have to resort to some statistics. The International Rugby Board is the governing body of world rugby. It maintains a list of rankings for each team, and these rankings are adjusted each time one of the teams plays another in a full international. The points for each of the six contenders are as follows:
Country IRB Ranking Points England 86.6 France 83.7 Ireland 82.6 Wales 76.9 Scotland 74.7 Italy 72.5
According to the IRB, home advantage is worth three ranking points. For example, Wales play Scotland in Murrayfield. The table would suggest that Wales will beat Scotland, but when you give Scotland their 3 points for home advantage, it brings their total to 77.7, marginally ahead of Wales' 76.9.
In the 6 Nations competition itself, you are awarded two points for a win and one for a draw. If we apply the IRB logic to the full fixture list, allowing for home advantage where appropriate, we end up with the following league table:
Country 6 Nations Points England 10 France 8 Ireland 6 Wales 4 Scotland 2 Italy 0
So it's a Grand Slam for England, and close-but-no-cigar for Ireland. But whatever about the lies and damned lies though, the statistics seem out of date. Italy are improving, the French are regrouping, and Scotland are in chaos. England do not seem like the team that won the World Cup, while Wales have recently given New Zealand a good run for their money. And of course, there's Ireland, the subject of much “could this be the year?” speculation. Being an odd-numbered year, we have home advantage against our two main opponents, the French and the English. The Munster forwards and Leinster backs have made a significant impact on the European Cup, and there's the small matter of a recent test victory against South Africa. First though, we face the Italians in Rome.