New stadium but Irish are in halfway house
Declan Kidney's team are still settling in to their shiny surroundings, writes Ben Kay
What should we make of Ireland? Like a few of the teams in this year's Six Nations they find themselves in a kind of halfway house.
Having won the Grand Slam only a couple of years ago, they are struggling to rediscover their form. They have suffered a lot of grief from that narrow win over Italy last weekend, with plenty made of the fact that they once again had to rely on the massive talent of a certain, less-than-youthful outhalf.
There are problems to be addressed -- inaccuracy being the main one last weekend -- but there are enough senior guys and quality leaders in that team to do it, especially with Jamie Heaslip coming back. They would probably prefer not to be playing the French next, who look as if they have moved out of the doldrums themselves, but this is a huge game for them.
I see one of two things happening. Either Ireland will get things back on track with a fantastic win, so that we suddenly go from talking about their struggles to touting them as potential Grand Slam winners. Or the wheels will come off completely. But if they do, I can see them having a terrible tournament, then meeting England on the final weekend, denying them a Grand Slam with an inspired win and taking just as much joy from that as if they had won the thing themselves.
One thing that does worry me, though, is this new stadium of theirs. The Irish are a much better team now than they were 10 years ago, say, when they mugged Grand Slam-hunting England, and these days they expect to win games on their own terms. But there is no harm in having the back-up plan of a wild, crumbling stadium full of roaring fans, if your fancier game plans are not working.
I don't think Ireland will have this, for a while at any rate. I enjoyed the old Lansdowne Road. It was full of character. I remember playing there as a young man for Waterloo against Wanderers and afterwards it was down to the clubhouse for Guinness and oysters.
The first thing I did when I played for England there was get changed as quickly as possible after the game and take a few of the boys over for a bit more of the same. It was very traditional and things move on but the problem the Irish have is that their new home is a bit of a white elephant. The economy is in turmoil, they have this shiny new stadium and the only people who can afford tickets are bankers. Now the banks are cutting back on their corporate shindigs at these things, we have a strange situation. A few years ago at Lansdowne Road, you could not get a ticket for love or money, whereas now there are a few floating around. There certainly were for the autumn internationals.
I think that it will have an impact on the psyche of Dublin and that this will take a while to become a treasured home venue. They have not built that relationship, the way they did very quickly with Croke Park, which was a hell of a place to play. At the moment it is all a bit too shiny.
That said, it is in Dublin and nine of the starting team against France are from Leinster, the form team in Europe. That has to help. Ireland are in a minor hole and in the Six Nations you have to dig yourself out of those very quickly if you want to mount a challenge. To do that, it helps massively when you are able to look around at familiar faces, whose playing style you know so well.
Then add to the mix men such as Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan and suddenly you are looking at Leinster with serious attitude. Those two have come in for some stick lately -- and Leo Cullen, my old team-mate from Leicester, is certainly pushing them hard -- but I thought Donncha played his best game for a while last weekend and Paul is another game back from his injury lay-off. I would say sticking with those two is the right call for now.
Ireland are not done yet and this is a mouthwatering clash. In the Tri Nations, if you perform badly one week, it is no big deal, because the next week you will play the same team again. In the Six Nations, the picture is constantly changing and you cannot afford to let anything slip. One side will be gutted this afternoon.
Ben Kay is co-commentator for ESPN's exclusive coverage of 43 Aviva Premiership Rugby games each season. He also appears on Grand Slam Winners -- part of ESPN Classic's Six Nations coverage
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