The return of international rugby is edging ever closer, and fans of Ireland have plenty to look forward to over the coming months.
Ireland’s men’s and women’s teams will both be hopeful of ending an elongated Six Nations 2020 campaign on a high, with victories over Italy and France in the next three weeks.
Focus for Andy Farrell’s men’s squad will then switch to the Autumn Nations Cup, while women’s head coach, Adam Griggs will attempt to guide his team to Rugby World Cup 2021 qualification in December.
Much has changed for Farrell since the men’s side’s last match, a 24-12 defeat to England at the end of February.
Of the 23 players that were selected for that match at Twickenham, four have been ruled out of the Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup through injury, while Devin Toner and John Cooney have been omitted.
Iain Henderson, who missed the England loss due to the birth of his son, is suspended for the remaining Six Nations matches having received a red card playing for Ulster against the Ospreys last weekend.
Henderson will be available for the Autumn Nations Cup, in which Ireland have been drawn against Wales, England and Georgia in Group A.
Ultan Dillane, meanwhile, has been drafted into the squad to provide cover in the second-row following an injury to promising Leinster forward, Ryan Baird.
In the absence of Henderson, Dillane will compete with club-mate Quinn Roux and Tadhg Beirne for a starting place against Italy and France alongside James Ryan.
World Rugby Player of the Decade nominee, Johnny Sexton is a slight doubt for Ireland’s match against Italy, while Farrell faces a selection dilemma at full-back.
Jordan Larmour has been ruled out of the rest of the Six Nations with a dislocated shoulder, leaving Ireland without an out-and-out number 15.
Farrell does have options, though, with Andrew Conway, Robbie Henshaw, Hugo Keenan, Shane Daly, Jack Carty and Jacob Stockdale all capable of covering the position.
Despite losing to England at the end of February, Ireland are still in contention for the Six Nations championship and will be keen to put down a marker against Italy at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.
Women eye RWC 2021 qualification
The same can be said for the nation’s women, who take on Italy at Donnybrook next weekend with the slimmest of championship hopes.
However, Griggs’ team are scheduled to face Italy again in December during the Rugby Europe RWC 2021 qualifier, meaning they have a chance to make a statement in Dublin.
Ireland prop Leah Lyons has split her time recently between training with her club side, Harlequins in London and travelling to Dublin for national team camps.
The 25-year-old admits it will be beneficial to get an idea of how Italy’s players have coped with the COVID-19 layoff when the teams meet at Donnybrook. However, Ireland’s focus is on making sure they use the two Six Nations matches to get themselves in perfect shape for the qualifying tournament.
“Our main focus is to get things right and to get things the way we want them to be, so that we end up in a good situation coming into those World Cup qualifiers,” Lyons told World Rugby.
“But, we'll obviously look to finish up the Six Nations as strong as possible. And, set down a marker to show teams that we're here, that the last six, seven months haven't been a blip for us. That we've been able to focus on training and concentrate on ourselves and getting ourselves into a good place.”
Ireland will face Scotland and the winner of the Rugby Europe Women’s Championship 2020, as well as Italy, in December’s RWC 2021 qualifying tournament.
Having hosted RWC 2017, Ireland’s players are determined not to miss out on the first edition of the tournament to be held in the southern hemisphere.
“It's everybody's dream to play rugby down in New Zealand,” Lyons added. “That's something that we all look at as well.
“You know, a Rugby World Cup, it only happens every four years. It is something that people do live for. You know, it's something that we're all striving to be a part of at the moment.”