George Hook: Ireland’s provincial success is a mere sham that’s killing our national side
Fans can brag about European victories all they want but the real test of a country's ability will always be in the Six Nations
The Irish are dab hands at self-delusion. An ability to deny the blatantly obvious courses through our veins like whiskey in a sea-side tavern and no matter how strong the evidence to the contrary, we consistently refuse to acknowledge our own failings.
Politicians have traded on the Irish propensity for burying heads in the sand for as long as I can remember. In this country, mistakes are soon forgotten – and rugby is no different.
The wind of optimism that rippled around the Aviva Stadium at the full-time whistle on November 24 echoed with the sound of empty grandeur. Ireland had out-played New Zealand for 75 minutes in Dublin but still somehow managed to come up short.
I remember watching the players slump off the pitch on that autumn afternoon; their heads bowed and the bitter taste of defeat still scorching their mouths. Cheered and consoled by heartbroken fans as they headed for the tunnel, the rest of the country sitting at home grasped at the positives from a glorious defeat against the world champions.
But there was nothing glorious about it. As Ireland reluctantly saluted defeat, the victorious All Blacks could not help but smirk and roll their eyes to heaven. "Imagine this in New Zealand," they thought. "Imagine a standing ovation for a bunch of losers? Is it any wonder we don't take Ireland seriously?"
The success of the Irish provinces in the Heineken Cup over the last 10 years has only served to prop up the national psyche. Leinster and Munster in particular have done wonders to champion the strength of Irish club rugby with five European titles in seven years, but Ireland's international game has suffered hugely as a result.
As each Six Nations Championship came and went without success, Ireland switched the focus straight back to the provinces for a synthetic high. And, when Leinster or Munster provided interim relief with victory in a European competition, the fans soon forgot all about the failings of the national team and conveniently focused their energy back into the provinces. It was all a big sham.
The irony of Irish club success at the expense of the national team is not lost on the Welsh. Forced to swallow buckets of grandiose patronising from their Celtic brethren during club competition, the Welsh have always relished the arrival of the Six Nations. Four championship titles over the last nine years, including three Grand Slams, tells its own story.
Wales, along with France and England, continue to dominate this annual tournament. Ireland, with only one title in 28 years, have always been bit-part players. Now, on the eve of the 2014 Championship, and with the future of club rugby in chaos, the nation turns its lowly eyes to Joe Schmidt in the hope of finding salvation.
There is plenty to like and admire about Schmidt. His record at Clermont Auvergne and more recently with Leinster stacks up alongside any other club coach in the world. Honesty and a deferential determination seep from his training boots. Crucially, the Irish players trust him.
Schmidt spent most of last year's November series laying the foundation for how he wants the game to be played. His passion for and work ethic around the job demand that the players learn quickly or they get left behind. It was the same way at Leinster.
The time constraints in international rugby are such that Schmidt only has a short period to impose his master plan on the players. Most of the current Irish squad he will already know from his time with Leinster, but that will only be beneficial if the same rules apply to Ireland as they did at Leinster.
Either way, it will take time for the squad to adjust to life under the new system. Declan Kidney's Grand Slam title in his first year in charge in 2009 was merely an extension of Eddie O'Sullivan's tenure. Ireland got over the line not because Kidney introduced a new system of play, but because the players finally believed they could win. Kidney got the plaudits, O'Sullivan was left cursing his luck.
It would be foolish and optimistic in the extreme to expect a repeat of Kidney's Grand Slam heroics this year. Ireland's most destructive weapon, Sean O'Brien, has been ruled out of the tournament with a shoulder injury and his absence is a massive blow. Similarly, Jonathan Sexton's below-par performances for Racing Metro in the Top 14 must be a worry.
The honeymoon period for the new coach is over but nobody expects change overnight. Schmidt has an opportunity this year to bring younger players through and one imagines that the building process towards the 2015 World Cup is already under way.
One of Schmidt's greatest challenges will come at outside centre where a replacement for Brian O'Driscoll must be identified. To this end, I would have no hesitation in handing Robbie Henshaw the chance to impress against Scotland and Italy. The Connacht teenager has all of the attributes necessary to fill the void when O'Driscoll retires and Schmidt has the perfect opportunity over the next seven weeks to give the teenager a taste of international rugby.
As far as this year's Championship is concerned, it is difficult to know what to expect. A repeat of the first 75 minutes against New Zealand across five rounds would see Ireland finish on top. But without a fit O'Brien, it is probably too much to expect.
Victory over France or England away from home would be a decent platform for Schmidt to build on but the key for me is the match against Wales. The in-fighting between the regions and the WRU must be taking its toll on the national squad and if Ireland cannot beat Wales in Dublin this year, something is seriously wrong. Ireland's 2014 campaign starts at home against Scotland. Anything less than a convincing win there and we can forget about the title for another year.
Above all else, Schmidt must identify and address Ireland's main weaknesses over the next few weeks. The time for trying out new combinations is now. And if it takes a Kiwi to highlight the shortcomings in the Irish game, so be it. No more burying heads in the sand and looking for the comfort of the Irish provinces to cheer us up. This time, we need a permanent fix.