Something about Schmidt makes us believe sky's the limit in Six Nations
TIME to shoot for the stars? Not because we learnt this week that Ireland boasts the best place in the northern hemisphere for stargazing. But because it's the eve of our opening Six Nations game. And Joe Schmidt is in charge.
I can't remember the last time I was this excited about the championship. And Joe isn't afraid of that; he wants that anticipation and expectation. He revealed yesterday that "we want people to be excited about potentially what we can deliver".
How often have you heard a coach in this country say this? Usually they try and dampen down any hype.
So what is it about Schmidt? Is it the elixir of him being a technician with a Brain Hacker touch which gets the best out of players? Or is it his insignia of wanting his team to play rugby that's seductive to watch? It's all of the above. But he's got the likeability factor as well (like? Its love according to some Leinster fans).
There's always a natural bounce whenever a new boss takes over. This week, players have been almost tripping over themselves talking about the verve Schmidt brings. The optics are clear. At one session this week, most players walked to the training pitch at Carton House. Paul O'Connell jogged. Cian Healy ran. Schmidt sprinted. Yes, sprinted.
The New Zealander is one of the main reasons Brian O'Driscoll decided to play for one more year. No matter what O'Driscoll insists, this final farewell is going to be emotional – no wonder the Aviva Stadium sold out for the three home games.
But at times this season, the Ireland centre has only been doing an impression of himself playing. He still has the capacity to surprise (like his between-the-legs pass) but his sharpness has not been to his usual standard. He has a knack though, of turning up the dial for the big stage. It's like the lyrics of Garth Brooks songs; you think you've forgotten them but you actually remember every single word.
And Ireland fans remember. Or rather, they don't forget. Warren Gatland will be in Dublin with his Wales team a week today. But is the decision Gatland made last summer to drop O'Driscoll something Schmidt will also have to face in this Six Nations? The over-riding aim for Schmidt's tenure has to be next year's Rugby World Cup – which O'Driscoll won't be at. Whoever takes over at 13 needs to start getting experience in that position. 'Resting' O'Driscoll or benching him for a game – for example, against Italy – is an option Schmidt must surely look at. One man who is set to captain Ireland all the way to the RWC in 2015 is Paul O'Connell. He's becoming even more influential; one of the few 'untouchables'. Real leadership is when things get tough and you find a way to ask the hardest questions of your own team-mates. That is what O'Connell will bring in this Six Nations.
Ireland also need the Big C. Consistency. On hearing a reporter ask a team-mate about the defeat to New Zealand, one player questioned why we keep talking about that game. He had a point. But we yearn for more of – or something close to – what we saw that day.
My dream of how I would like this Six Nations to finish? Paddy's weekend. Paris. Ireland beat France to win the championship. And imagine – on the same stage he scored a hat-trick of tries 14 years ago, O'Driscoll is once again being hailed from the Champs Elysees to Clontarf.
But the Six Nations is a tricky and tough roadmap.
For fans lucky to have a ticket for the game against Scotland, it signals the end of the winter hibernation. First Sunday of Spring. The atmosphere around Lansdowne will sizzle and not just with the smell of fried burgers (don't feel bad – even some of the Irish players ate healthy burgers this week).
Before the game the Scots will show off their kilts. And their bagpipes. But few will blow their own trumpet.
Soak it up. Steel yourself. You never know. The stars may just align for us this spring.
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