RBS Six Nations 2013 - Ireland preview
By Tony Curtis - Follow me on Twitter @SkysportsTC. Last Updated: 29/01/13 6:36am
It was very much a case of ifs, buts and maybes for the Irish team in last season's championship.
Declan Kidney's side will look back on the Wales game where a crucial decision went against them, while the postponement of the France match left them with a physically demanding schedule.
Injuries have also counted against Ireland over the course of the past 12 months, however that, in fact, could have worked out in their favour.
The loss of the likes of Paul O'Connell, Stephen Ferris, Tommy Bowe and Brian O'Driscoll has meant that Michael Bent, Iain Henderson and Craig Gilroy have gained international experience - while Donnacha Ryan has really impressed.
Dave Kilcoyne, Richardt Strauss, Ronan Loughney, Declan Fitzpatrick and Simon Zebo have also gained their first caps during the past year, while non-Test international with Fiji allowed the likes of Luke Marshall and Paddy Jackson to be blooded for the first time.
O'Driscoll will make a welcome return for the Six Nations although the Leinster centre can concentrate solely on playing after Jamie Heaslip was handed the captaincy.
Ireland endured a mixture of emotions after last season's championship - with a missed chance to beat New Zealand in the second Test in the summer followed up by an emphatic defeat to seal a 3-0 series whitewash. They also lost to South Africa in the autumn, but the wins over Fiji and Argentina will have given them hope.
A repeat of last year's opener against Wales will give the side the chance to set the record straight, while they will be targeting wins from their trips to Italy and Scotland. The crunch games could come at home against England and France.
Coach: Declan Kidney
Captain: Jamie Heaslip
Key man: Brian O'Driscoll
Last season: 3rd
SkyBet Odds: 7/2
Prediction: 3rd - The autumn victory over Argentina will have breathed new life into Irish hopes after a disappointing championship last year and a tough tour to New Zealand. While injuries might have hampered their hopes, it has given a number of players the chance to emerge through the ranks. They face a difficult opener in Wales and how they perform there could be key to their chances.