THE 2016 RBS 6 Nations season kicks off this weekend with a decided lack of confidence surrounding Ireland’s prospects.
Perhaps the reduced level of expectation is due to a mixture of the province’s poor displays in the Champions Cup and the bitter disappointment of Ireland’s Rugby World Cup experience last autumn.
Last season’s 6 Nations Championship provided the most dramatic final day yet with three sides in with a chance of lifting the title before Joe Schmidt’s Ireland were eventually declared winners on points difference.
There has been a clamour from some quarters in recent seasons for the introduction of a bonus point system in the championship.
Those in favour of such a move believe, similar to what exists in both the Guinness Pro12 and Champions Cup, a bonus point should be awarded for teams scoring more than four tries in a fixture and a losing bonus point for nations losing by seven points or less.
Of course the argument against the introduction of the bonus point is that a country could win all five of their 6 Nations games (without picking up a bonus point) and lose out on winning the title to a side losing one of its fixtures, but doing so with a losing bonus point, and managing to win each of the other four games with a bonus point.
The issue of bonus points in rugby is generating much controversy in Southern Hemisphere rugby right now. Changes have been made to how bonus points will be awarded in the upcoming Super Rugby competition.
Sanzaar (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina Rugby) is expecting its controversial new Super Rugby bonus point system to lead to more attacking play this season.
The main variation on last season is that the four-try bonus point is replaced by a bonus point for finishing three or more tries ahead of the opposing team.
The bonus point for losing by seven or fewer points remains unchanged.
The other difference this season is that penalty options after match time has expired include playing a lineout.
Sanzaar - which has had a name change from Sanzar - finally confirmed the changes on Tuesday after they were approved by its executive council this week. Coaches found out about them in the middle of January and some were not pleased.
Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder found the process "bizarre" and was disappointed by the lack of consultation.
But Sanzaar chief executive Andy Marinos defended the process.
"It has not gone unnoticed the number of key stakeholders that have felt the need to publicly criticise Sanzaar for initiatives that were floated months ago and heavily canvassed throughout each national union," he said.
The name change to Sanzaar is to reflect Argentina's Super Rugby participation.
The Super Rugby competition begins with a double-header on Friday, February 26 as the Highlanders begin their title defence against the Blues in Auckland before the Brumbies host the Hurricanes.
The following day, the first Super match to be played in Japan is between the Sunwolves and the Lions.