Sunday 28 May 2017

Johnny's exit could be the tip of the iceberg


SO THE best out half on these shores has decided to chase the (metaphorical) franc and sample Paris in the springtime next season.

The news of Johnny Sexton's imminent departure to Racing Metro on a two-year contract came not long after the Province's egression from the Heineken Cup, rubbing salt into the already stinging Leinster wounds.

Some will brand him a mercenary, only after the pay cheque but to be honest I really don't blame him.

A rugby player's career is a short one and thus has to be as fruitious as possible and the IRFU certainly weren't making as attractive an offer as the deep pocketed Parisians.

My real worry is that this is just the tip of the iceberg and that the Irish provinces will go the way of the Welsh (and subsequently the dodo) as the best and brightest leave their homeland for the lure of the sugar daddy French clubs.

In previous seasons there was always a French club (or the Miami Dolphins if your name is Ronan O'Gara), magically interested in a player just around contract renewal time to improve their negotiation stance. I personally thought the Sexton rumour was just that but unfortunately the IRFU will increasingly find themselves in positions where they can't even get close to the Gallic juggernauts, effectively ruling out their trump card of players getting to stay close to home as a bonus with hundreds of thousands filling the gap between offers.

With the start of the 6 Nations next weekend Declan Kidney and the powers that be in the IRFU will have to put these off field activities behind them and focus on what will be a rather tricky trip to the Millennium Stadium.

You can't win a Grand Slam in the first game but you can certainly lose one and the Welsh will be raring to go following their poor showing in the autumn. The return of Adam Jones will give them further confidence as they really missed the tight head during his injury lay off and, lest we forget not 12 months ago this Welsh side won the grand slam so should not be taken lightly.

According to the media, the Irish camp are currently a rather happy one (aren't they always in the lead up to a competition) and the build up is going well in Carton House.

In a dose of reality Declan Kidney won't have learnt a huge amount from last Friday night's Irish Wolfhounds game against the Saxons apart from what he already knew, that we're in dire straights when it comes to a replacement tight head prop. Michael Bent, brought over from New Zealand especially for his scrummaging prowess, was quite simply destroyed by Gloucester's Nick Wood.

The rate of knots that the Irish scrum marched backwards was frightening at times and all the pressure was coming onto Ireland's tight head side.

Declan Fitzpatrick did a far better job on his introduction on the 69th minute but he surely can't be deemed fit enough for test rugby having only played around 100 minutes of rugby so far this season. With Stephen Archer out injured (and hardly the propping Messiah) Kidney will be saying a novena to St Christopher for the safe passage of Mike Ross through out the 6 Nations.

Interestingly on the other side of the scrum at loose head things look eminently better with Cian Healy's understudies Dave Kilcoyne and Tom Court fighting it out for a bench spot with both in fine form.

This seems to be the case in quite a few areas of the squad at the moment with competition for places stronger than ever before.

So strong squad aside, what really are our chances this year?

Let's face it; Scotland and Italy haven't challenged for anything other than the wooden spoon for the last number of seasons and their form in no way suggests a change from the norm. Wales (as I mentioned above) can be dangerous on their day and will want to atone for the autumn, particularly now that Rob Howley is in fully as interim coach rather than the job share arrangement they had previously.

That said I can't really see them posing a serious threat to the main contenders.

Following their record win against the All Blacks, England have been installed as the favourites for this year's championship. It remains to be seen whether that performance was a flash in the pan against an off form (and under the weather if you believe the rumours) New Zealand. However, they are starting to look more like the powerhouse they once were and certain key players are showing great form lately but I don't think they'll end up on top of the heap.

My own favourites have to be France following a fantastic showing in the autumn and some strong player performances in the Heineken Cup.

They'll be missing their try merchant Vincent Clerc for the initial matches and the young full back Brice Dulan is also on the injury list but to be able to parachute in a player of the calibre of Maxime Medard as replacement show's scary strength in depth.

With the ' big two' coming to the Aviva this year Ireland have a better chance at success.

We'll have to ensure that there's less of the failure to convert possession into points that marred the match against the Springboks while creating a lot more of the fluidity of attack that crushed Argentina.

If we manage this we can certainly compete with France and England although I've a sneaking suspicion (unfortunately) that a mid table finish is on the cards. Whatever happens, we'll need the departing Johnny on top form.

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