How Ireland Ousted England as the Best Rugby Union Team in Europe

Simon Wells
Authored by Simon Wells
Posted: Wednesday, February 14, 2024 - 06:04

Pick any sport and you will notice that it tends to move in cycles – a team may have a dominant period of winning silverware, but eventually they will be usurped by a rival… and then the cycle continues.

That helps to explain why five of the competing countries in rugby’s Six Nations tournament have been able to get their hands on the trophy over the years.

No team has won the Six Nations more times than England, however, just one triumph since 2018 reveals that their era of domination is over.

Stepping into the breach is Ireland, who won the Grand Slam in 2023 after winning all five of their games. And now, in 2024, they find themselves the odds-on favourites to retain the championship once again.

Emerald Smiles

Those Six Nations odds make Ireland 1/6 favourites to lift the trophy in 2024 – red-hot favouritism compared to England’s 17/2. The rugby odds also have the Irish as a 4/9 chance to defeat all their opponents and clinch the Grand Slam again.

That really is a measure of how far Irish rugby has come in the past couple of years, with the retirements of key figures – such as the legendary Johnny Sexton – proving only a minor inconvenience, rather than a tragedy.

Compare and contrast that to England, who saw as many as six of their World Cup squad, where they reached the semi-finals, retire from international rugby after the tournament. The RFU’s decision to bar players that join clubs in overseas countries from national selection is also undermining any progress that Steve Borthwick is trying to make with his team.

There are no such problems for Ireland head coach Andy Farrell, who has an incredibly talented squad of players to choose from – as their results over the past 12 months testify.

A Year to Remember

It all began at the 2023 Six Nations, where Ireland lived up to pre-tournament expectations of a team on the up.

They won all five of their games, as we know, but they did so by a margin of at least 13 points or more in every outing– essentially a gap of two converted tries over every opponent. That is as dominant a Six Nations campaign as you are ever likely to see.

Sexton was a key man there – as he would be at the subsequent World Cup before hanging up his boots, while the likes of Dan Sheehan, Hugo Keenan and James Lowe proved themselves to be international talents of some merit.

The Irish were many pundits’ dark horses for the World Cup in France last autumn, with expectations well and truly met when they topped Pool B with four wins from four – beating South Africa, who would go on to lift the trophy, along the way.

Their quarter-final date with New Zealand went right down to the wire, with Jordie Barrett’s late penalty just enough to hand the Kiwis victory and break Irish hearts.

They have regrouped since, coming back stronger even in the wake of retirements and injuries to canter to victory in their opening two Six Nations games. Another Grand Slam beckons as they continue to dominate international rugby on European soil.

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