Thursday 25 May 2017

Good vibes around Irish camp

WITH the 6 Nations looming large, the IRFU must feel rather happy with themselves after managing to get their ducks in a row following all the French speculation.

They now have their big names present and accounted for having signed on the dotted line but its left the likes of Toulon more than a little frustrated.

Both Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip have been leading them on a merry dance for the last few weeks, merely flirting with them to get a better deal from a jealous IRFU.

President Mourad Boudjellal would be used to getting his own way, what with his bottomless cheque book, so this will not go down well in the South of France.

I don't think the French teams will be coming within an ass's roar of any Irish players in the foreseeable future, once bitten, twice shy as they say. They seem to be having a lot more luck enticing the Welsh players anyway.

In this regard the Welsh national side are a bit of an anomaly.

As they compete to win a third 6 Nations title in a row their clubs are in disarray with a player exodus and an uncertainty for those that do stay as to what competition they'll even be playing in next season.

They've always been a team that have performed better than the sum of their parts though and you can almost guarantee that they'll be in the mix come the final round of matches, irrespective of the turmoil.

Ireland have been the polar opposite for the last number of years with the success of the provinces never quite transposing itself to the International set up.

An Irish Province has claimed the Heineken Cup five times in the last eight years but Ireland have only managed one 6 Nations title.

The Welsh teams on the other hand haven't even reached a final in that time but have three 6 Nations Championships to their names, two of them with a Grand Slam to boot.

This is the challenge that faces Joe Schmidt in his first year at the helm and it is a monumental one.

The current Ireland squad have already shown us that they have a bit of a Jeykll and Hyde persona with two alarmingly different displays against Australia and New Zealand only a week apart from each other in the November Internationals.

This makes it very difficult to predict their chances in this year's competition.

Not every game is as big as the All Blacks so it's about the players performing to the best of their capabilities when they're not fired up to the gills with passion.

No doubt it's something that Schmidt is working on in camp along with the eternal struggle that is combining the four provincial styles into one.

He's made his task a little easier by going with quite a Leinster heavy selection which you wouldn't blame him for having coached the province with great success.

There's such a short time frame between the squad gathering and the first match against Scotland that the more familiarity he has with the players the better.

In terms of selection for that match some positions are obviously set in stone (Cian Healy, Conor Murray and captain Paul O'Connell to name a few) but with the injuries to Tommy Bowe, Sean O'Brien, Keith Earls and Donnacha Ryan there are vacancies as well, particularly on the bench.

With that in mind there was extra incentive for those taking part in the Saxons vs Wolfhounds game in Kingsholm last weekend but unfortunately the conditions ensured that defence was the only real stand out area for the Irish.

How Stuart Barnes named Isaac Boss (Ok, but hardly spectacular) man of the match I'll never know as my plaudits all went to the back row.

Rhys Ruddock, Tommy O'Donnell and Robin Copeland shone in a scrappy match, dominating the breakdown and making hard yards with ball in hand.

The O'Brien shaped hole in the Irish team will more than likely be filled by Ulster's Chris Henry but there's room on the bench for one of them.

If I had to pick I'd go with O'Donnell, but that could be me wearing red tinted glasses. Munster bound number 8, Copeland, is a player I'm looking forward to seeing a lot more of. With three 'man of the match' awards for Cardiff in the pool stages of the Heineken Cup he's having a meteoric rise.

I'd also like to have seen more of Robbie Henshaw as I think he could well be the Irish 13 in waiting but with the heavy pitch and strong winds it wasn't a game for the backs.

Hopefully he'll get a run out at some stage over the next few weeks.

Fergus Mcfadden is another player hoping to force his way onto the scene following his injury but he had a bit of a mixed bag with some good defence but fairly loose kicks. Schmidt seems to be a bit of a fan of him though so don't be surprised if he features prominently.

This might be at the expense of Simon Zebo as the Cork man probably hasn't played enough rugby to get back into Schmidt's thoughts.

He looked keen again when he came on, making space out of nothing so it'd be a shame for him not to play some part in the proceedings.

He has that extra something about him that the crowd love but he just has to keep his feet on the ground.

Finally, the front row used to be an area of player scarcity but is quick becoming an oasis of talented props.

This is of particular interest at tight head where Marty Moore and Stephen Archer are battling it out to be Mike Ross's back up in the absence of the injured Declan Fitzpatrick.

Ross has struggled to come to terms with the new laws so could find himself gazumped by one or the other before long.

It's a good place to be following the 'John Hayes hangover' that Irish rugby found itself in after the great man retired.

With Scotland up first at home, we should have a good starting platform for what could be a fairly decent campaign in a year where there are no real stand-out competitors.

Of course we did manage to lose to them last year but I'm going with the positive outlook that lightening surely can't strike the same place twice?

Bray People

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