With a new captain and a changing Heineken Cup dynamic, Michael Aylwin seeks to answer the hard questions about Ireland
Perhaps not championship winners, but can Ireland be the best of the Celts?
Ireland almost always start the Six Nations as the knowing rugby connoisseur's tip for a good bet. And they almost always end it just where the bookies reckon they will, which is to say, not first. The one exception was the Grand Slam year in 2009, Declan Kidney's first in charge. But in the 12 other editions of the Six Nations they have finished second no less than six times, three of those on points difference to the winner. So, contenders always, winners rarely.
This year, Wales' slump has seen most bookies install Ireland as third favourites, just ahead of the Welsh. The Celtic countries are all, to a greater or lesser degree, in a state of flux, but it is around Ireland that you might pick up the most positive vibes. In truth, they are balanced on an edge.
Can Jamie Heaslip inspire as captain?
This will be the first time since 2003 that Ireland will have Brian O'Driscoll in the team as a humble foot soldier. If there is a feeling that Ireland have enjoyed a golden generation of players for a decade or so, it is O'Driscoll who best represents it. He's 34 now, the same sort of age as the rest of the golden boys, and one where most players think about the end, if they haven't met with it already.
There are more than a few talented players coming through, but this is the ebbing of a tide that any team would feel keenly. Heaslip will become the first man to captain O'Driscoll in an Ireland shirt since Keith Wood – and he can't wait. The 29-year-old No 8 was bright-eyed and slick-haired at the Six Nations launch last week, looking quite the star. Poor old Kidney didn't stand a chance next to him.
"It's fantastic," he said of being made captain for the Six Nations. "I'm giddy. When Deccie asked me, I had to stop myself jumping across the table to give him a hug." Forget Ireland. If Heaslip has a good tournament he may yet end up the Lions captain.
Is Michael Bent up to scratch for the crucial role of tighthead prop?
Ireland's last Six Nations was a disaster. They lost Mike Ross in the first half against England. The subsequent capitulation of the scrum was hideous and reinforced the impression that, of all the golden generation, Ross, 33, is just about the most precious at the moment.
That feeling was in no way diminished by the airlifting in of Bent, a Kiwi with an Irish grandmother. He landed at the airport and was called in for his Ireland debut, in that order, but only just. Early indications are that he can scrummage and, what's more, Ireland will be able to field him on the bench as a specialist tighthead, now that three front-row replacements are allowed at international level. This, at least, should ease the short-term crisis, but Declan Fitzpatrick is lonely as the next in line, a fair way back.
Was the Argentina win a turning point?
If there are positive vibes about Ireland at the moment, it is largely down to the win over Argentina in November. But how much should be read into that? Argentina had never known a season like the one that concluded with that game. They looked exhausted, which is not Ireland's fault.
But take that win away and the previous one against the rabble that was Fiji, and suddenly we are back into some of Ireland's most sobering defeats of recent times.
What is the fallout from a changing dynamic at Heineken Cup level?
Ireland's golden generation has underpinned the glittering success of the provinces in the Heineken Cup. But this year's Six Nations comes hot on the heels of Leinster's untimely failure to make the quarter-finals.
Munster just sneaked through, leaving Ulster as Ireland's dominant province. But of Ulster's key players, only Rory Best and Chris Henry are likely to lend their weight in Ireland's opener against Wales.
At the very least, Ireland's Leinster and Munster players should enter the Six Nations livid at how their provinces have let their standing in the Heineken Cup slip.
Are Ireland at risk of losing their best players to a big French pay day?
Ireland players have gone abroad before, but Jonathan Sexton's signing for Racing Metro is the first time the IRFU have lost the fight over a prized asset.
Is it a one-off, or the shape of things to come? At least, if it is the latter, Ireland will be in good company. The French clubs are becoming quite the menace. Such is their strength that even the French national team struggles to have its way. Wales are terrified; England try to play it cool; Scotland and Italy long gave up worrying. Ireland were seen as above it.
Next season, there will be restrictions on the number of non-Ireland-eligible players in the three senior provinces, which should help development, but in the meantime Irish rugby must keep itself together. Proving the bookies wrong would be a bold start. Observer