Ireland boss Joe Schmidt believes the reigning double champions may have to settle for a mid-table RBS 6 Nations finish.
Schmidt’s men can become the first side to win three successive Six Nations titles this year – but the Ireland head coach insists a “top-half finish” would represent a good return.
Ireland must do without injured contingent Cian Healy, Mike Ross, Marty Moore, Iain Henderson and Peter O’Mahony from their pack alone for the opening two clashes against Wales and France.
That crippling catalogue of injuries, coupled with talismanic captain Paul O’Connell’s Test retirement, has left Schmidt urging Ireland to be “realistic” with this year’s expectations.
“To be as candid as I can, I think a top-half finish would be a good Six Nations for us,” said Schmidt, despite Ireland claiming the 2014 and 2015 titles.
“We start with Wales and France in a six-day turnaround and then go to England. That could put us in a very tough position before we’ve even got our feet fully rounded in going forward.
“If we could be in the top half that means we’d have to be in front of three pretty good teams.
“I think being realistic, our dream would be to do what no team has done before, and we’re not going to give up the dream but we’re also reasonably pragmatic and practical in what we try to deliver.
“And I think it would be unfair on the players if I said the only way to be successful is to win the championship.
“To be honest it’s never something that we’ve spoken about, we’ve been very much week-to-week in our focus.”