Rob Kearney predicts Ireland will have one major rival in two-team battle for Six Nations
Ireland's impressive performance in the November international have inspired Rob Kearney to predict Andy Farrell's men are leading contenders to win this year's Six Nations, as he predicts one showdown could decide the championship.
The win against New Zealand's All Blacks suggested Ireland are making huge strides under Farrell's leadership and now Kearney has predicted this year's Six Nations will be a shoot-out between the Irish and a powerful France side.
Kearney is getting used to life looking in on Ireland's fortunes after his retirement from the game last year, with the Leinster great looking forward to the experience of watching the Six Nations through different eyes this year.
"It was a superb November and they probably caught a lot of us off-guard a little bit," said Kearney, speaking in his new role as a Virgin Media Sport analyst.
"Against New Zealand it was as complete a performance as we've seen from an Irish team in a number of years.
"They just looked so comfortable keeping the ball in hand for a consistent amount of phases - and when they didn't have the ball, their primary objective was just to go back and get it as quickly as possible, there was real aggression in the line speed.
"The system defensively caused them a little bit of trouble in the Six Nations over the last couple of years. But they've made huge strides in that now and they'll be going into this competition with a huge amount of confidence.
"The French are rightfully favourites for the competition. We're going away to Paris, to a packed out Stade de France which is always another layer to the difficulty of winning over there.
"At the same time, if they're playing as good rugby as they have done, there's no reason why Ireland shouldn't be going there with a huge amount of confidence."
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Saturday's Six Nations opener against Wales will be the first big test for Ireland, but Kearney is convinced this will be a game they negotiate with plenty to spare.
"Wales have surprised us a huge amount over the last number of years but I'd be surprised to see them up around the top table again," added Kearney.
"I'd expect a relatively comfortable win for Ireland - and that first game is always really important because it can just springboard your confidence into the rest of the tournament.
"If it goes wrong, you can be under pressure very quickly. It's a really good opener for Ireland to have, particularly at home.
"You can see the difference a full Aviva made to the team against New Zealand in November and they haven't really played in front of a full stadium again since. I think that will be a huge motivating factor for them."
Rob Kearney will be an analyst for Virgin Media Sport during the Six Nations Championship.
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