independent

Wednesday 23 April 2014

George Hook: Ireland must fix set-piece failings for shot at glory

The accepted wisdom has always been that the odd years give Ireland the best chance in the Six Nations Championship because the big battalions of England and France have to travel to Dublin.

There are two flaws in that argument. One, it means that three matches are away from home and, of course, other teams also have certain advantages in the fixture list.

The big beneficiaries this year are England, who have three home games including the banana skin of the Calcutta Cup, the mighty French and ever-improving Italy.

Too much credence should not be placed on the win over New Zealand but coach Stuart Lancaster has clearly produced a team of high morale that might not find the Aviva intimidating.

The vagaries of the fixture list have not only sent the French away three times but travelling to England and Ireland in consecutive weeks. Rightly installed as favourites, if they win the championship it will be a testament to their strength of character and the talents of coach Philippe Saint-Andre who in his career has promised more than he delivered.

Ireland will be hoping that a loss at Twickenham would dampen French élan and make the task easier.

As Jonny Sexton makes his way to France, he adds to the number of non-qualified No 10s. Jonny Wilkinson, Luke McAlister, Brock James and others have left the best team in Europe with just two contenders – Frederic Michalak and Francois Trinh-Duc – neither of them consistent winners. It is not genius to suggest that Ireland's opening game in Cardiff will determine the season. The problem for fans, players and management alike is that the opponents may not be as bad as their record suggests.

Rob Howley, holding the fort in the absence of Warren Gatland, will have front-rows Adam Jones and Exeter Chiefs prop Craig Mitchell, who missed the November Internationals. It will enable him to attack Ireland at the scrum where they may be weakest.

The backline is also full of talent and could fire if the coach who, rumour has it, is not well-liked, gets his ducks in a row. Eli Walker dazzled in the Heineken Cup and is the antithesis of giants Alex Cuthbert and George North. Wales could be a big problem for an Irish team that is hardly brimming with confidence after the performances of the provinces in Europe.

Wales captain Sam Warburton, a contender for the Lions captaincy, could find himself at No 6 with Ospreys' Justin Tipuric at openside. That could be good for his country and the player himself.

Italy could get a win in Rome despite having France and Ireland as the opponents. Declan Kidney is lucky to have them on the last day when traditionally they are at their weakest. Coach Jacques Brunel's philosophy of running rugby is paying off and the Azzurri contained Australia right up until they scored in the 81st minute in November.

Despite the PR emanating from the Scottish camp about coach Scott Johnson, they will be fighting for last place against Italy on February 9.

So England are second favourites but fancied by many to be champions. Too much is being read in to the win over New Zealand in November and while the Heineken Cup has shown Owen Farrell to be a fine dead-ball kicker, he has yet to show that he can run a backline. He is, in fact, a poor man's Wilkinson.

Four teams can win this championship and England, France, Wales and Ireland are all hoping to have a clean bill of health for their centre partnerships. Manu Tuilagi's ankle is a problem. Wesley Fofana could have a dramatic campaign and Jamie Roberts could have a reprise of his Lions form. Ireland will need Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy firing on all cylinders.

A careful study of the Heineken Cup tells a lot about Ireland's chances. We lack hookers that can throw the ball accurately to the line-out; there are just two props of international calibre in the country and Michael Bent has turned out to be, as we feared he would, a pretender.

It will be easy then for our opponents to work out a strategy to bring Ireland down. Attack the scrum and line-out and deny the talent behind possession, space, and the front foot.

Conversely, if the obvious faults are fixed then Ireland could be competitive. The problem is that the coaches at international and provincial level have shown no ability to address the obvious problems. Joe Schmidt continues to lead a charmed life at Leinster when his team failed to qualify, not entirely but crucially, because they had a bad line-out.

How then will Ireland do? Italy and Scotland should be banker wins but Wales will not roll over. It is entirely possible three away wins could be Ireland's lot.

However, if the Aviva has any memories of Lansdowne Road then the sound could frighten the two visitors who are in the whole of their rugby health. A flaky France and a stuttering England could lead Kidney to greatness and a new contract. Somehow I doubt it, and two wins out of five is more likely.

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