Brian O'Driscoll is leaving in a blaze of glory
O'Driscoll's farewell factor may tip balance in Ireland's favour, writes Eddie Butler
Brian O'Driscoll has gone into camp for the last time. He has entered Ireland's hermetically-sealed bunker, proof against all outside distractions, and is no doubt, even as you read this, bent over the roadmap, charting the course to a glorious exit from international rugby.
The leading Irish player in a group long dubbed the golden generation is looking to mingle the experience of these elders with the fearless confidence of the new breed that thrust forward through their own talisman, the 26-year-old Cian Healy.
Ireland are buoyant and even the history of not always managing to merge the best of their three feeder provinces – plus a dash of defiant spirit from the fourth, Connacht – can be relegated to insignificance by the events of last November. On a Saturday afternoon, the Irish turned out against Australia and produced a performance so flat in front of an audience so quiet that it seemed that the only order of the day was Trappist.
The new coach, Joe Schmidt, did make one audible promise, that Ireland would be better next time out. That happened to be eight days later, against the all-conquering New Zealand who needed this last scalp to complete the year unbeaten, 14 out of 14. Nobody expected Ireland's Sunday's resistance to be more impassioned or even any louder than Saturday's.
They came within 20 seconds of winning. They were 20 little ticks away from beating the All Blacks for the first time. If that doesn't count for something in the quest to mould one starting squad of 23 from a talented extended group, then nothing will. Throw in the O'Driscoll farewell factor and that Ireland open with the luxury of a pair of home games, and it would appear that this could be their year.
They will be missing Seán O'Brien, who played the game of his life against New Zealand – even better than his game against Australia at the 2011 World Cup – but who is now injured. Each nation of the six, however, is missing at least one key player, be it Jonathan Davies for Wales, England's Manu Tuilagi, Scotland's Tim Visser or France's Thierry Dusautoir. It goes with the territory and the casualty rates seem no worse for one country than any other.
The second of Ireland's home games is against Wales. This will be supercharged by the chattering social-media classes, elevated (or debased) into a grudge match, all driven by the dropping of O'Driscoll by the Lions coach, Warren Gatland, for the third and deciding Test in Australia last summer.
It's a combination of tired ancient history and the very stuff of a vibrant rivalry, and deep within the bunker is probably not to be discussed. Ireland wouldn't want the bile of the digital pathways to burn a hole in their discipline.
Might it affect Wales, the defending Six Nations champions, but beaten at home by Ireland last year in round one? Alex Cuthbert, a vital part of the backline that plays a more heavyweight game than the Wales pack, has said the team acknowledge that they are the ones to beat. They are not just defending champions, but two-time winners. A third title would set a Six Nations record.
Wales are in a state of abject chaos. But this is a default position and they seem to relish going into the Six Nations like no other country. In Camp Gatland they are treated like abused hire cars, to be stripped down, rebuilt and sent back out, gleaming and turbocharged.
So concentrated are the reconditioning sessions that Wales sometimes start fitfully, as they did last year, but they have a tried-and-tested mechanics' pit, and they are confident that when the championship demands a performance, they generally deliver.
They worry perhaps about Adam Jones' response to the new scrummaging rituals. The removal of the hit seems to have worked against him, but the consensus seems to be that this is not such a micro-technical adjustment as a requirement for Wales' beloved tighthead prop to lose a couple of pounds. In Camp Gatland, shedding ballast is not hard.
Wales have the comfort of a home game against Italy in round one.
Presumably, they will make heavy work of it until the rejuvenated vehicle kicks into overdrive. Sergio Parisse can hold out on his own only for so long, but while he does we shall be able to admire the work of a true giant of our rugby times.
He may not, however, be the player of the championship. Here's a stab at choosing the successor to Leigh Halfpenny. Not O'Driscoll, but Toby Faletau. The No 8 who will go toe to toe with Parisse grows in stature game by game. He makes the odd handling error – but so does Sergio. He has the most industrious work rate at international level, even if his regional coach, Lyn Jones, gnashes his teeth about some of the things he does for the Dragons.
Faletau, in a season when part of the chaos results from confusion over where the best players in Wales will be playing next year – Halfpenny, for example, has just signed for Toulon – settled any debate over his future by signing an extension to his contract with the Dragons. Why? Out of loyalty to his adopted country.
England will be strong. But they will have to confirm their embrace of their more dextrous game – nobody slips more passes out now than Chris Robshaw – away from home in the first two rounds. Then they face Ireland at home, followed by Wales, one of whom will be going full-steam ahead for the title.
England's first game is against France in Paris, not quite the horrible hurdle it once was. The richer the French clubs grow, the less inclined they are to give heart and soul to their country. They should ask Faletau to talk to them.
Scotland and Italy will do what they do: upset the chances of somebody else without staking a claim on the trophy. Until the arrival of Vern Cotter from Clermont Auvergne as coach, Scotland will go so far and then spring a leak.
Who will not be holed? The winner of Ireland-Wales perhaps will take the title – maybe not with a Grand Slam, but with a heap of satisfaction from coming through one of the most hyped confrontations of the professional age. Even the deepest bunkers will be shaken by the collisions.