Friday 23 June 2017

Comment: Scots' firepower spells danger on day one for Irish

Our prospects likely to hinge on keeping our main men healthy for the entire Championship

Scotland head coach Vern Cotter. Photo: Reuters
Scotland head coach Vern Cotter. Photo: Reuters

Jim Glennon

After a November series of such unprecedented heights that a home defeat to New Zealand was considered a major disappointment, the traditionally lofty new year expectations of Irish rugby supporters are even loftier than usual as we face into this year's Championship.

The prospect of a third championship in four seasons is a tantalising one, and the combination of a new-found capacity for peaking on the biggest days and the blend of young and experienced talent available to Joe Schmidt, make for a heady mix. Recent results, and the chance of knocking an all-conquering England off their perch, have fuelled excitement levels.

With the traditional big two of France and England visiting the Aviva, the optimism is not without foundation, but there'll be no shortage of hazards on the journey either. The anticipated Paddy's weekend Grand Slam showdown, on which so many seem to be banking, is by no means set in stone.

In the recent past, an opening pair of away trips to Scotland and Italy would've been viewed as virtual 'gimmes', an opportunity to get two wins on the board before getting down to the real business. While still favourites to come through those opening eight days with two wins, neither are in any way straightforward, nor will they yield bonus points as easily as they might to other opposition later in the competition.

Scotland under Vern Cotter and powered by the successful Glasgow squad have gathered real momentum, and will field their most talented group in many years. Skipper Greg Laidlaw had his tongue firmly in cheek midweek when he played down the significance of the latter, given their abysmal record over the last decade.

Signs of real and sustained improvement have, however, been evident under Cotter and they're now a more than credible opponent for any team. In terms of ball-players and offensive capacity they'll threaten any defence but an inability to close matches out when it really matters has been their Achilles heel.

They've been putting themselves in positions to win games, but just haven't had the wherewithal to finish the job; if it's a truism that emerging teams must lose some to win one, they've more than filled their quota of losses.

Whether their transition will happen this year under Cotter, next season under Gregor Townsend, or at all, the opener in Murrayfield next week will be a real test for Ireland with the Scots looking to it as a springboard for their season, with Wales and Italy due to visit later; Schmidt, I know, sees the fixture as one massive banana skin.

It's difficult to know what to expect in Rome in round two, even if anything other than a win would be a massive disappointment. Since their entry to the competition in 2000, the well-worn cliché has been that the Italians are at their strongest early in the competition, and especially at home.

The outcome of Wales' visit to Stadio Olimpico in round one, the manner of that home performance and the reaction of the Italian players to the result - most likely a defeat - will be key factors in shaping the challenge facing Ireland in round two.

The inconsistency that has plagued Italian rugby was evident again in November with a first win over South Africa sandwiched between a hammering by New Zealand and a loss to Tonga. With Conor O'Shea and Mike Catt having had more time to bed in, and Brendan Venter's further ongoing involvement confirmed, a more organised and obstinate Italy can be guaranteed.

Theirs is a long-term project, but some quick wins are by no means beyond them, and leaving Rome with four points in round two would represent a job well done by Ireland.

Our tournament schedule this season is something of a campaign of two phases, with a break of a week after those two opening fixtures in eight days. Of crucial importance, and notwithstanding our new-found depths of reserves, will be the health of the squad and particularly the fitness of a number of key men on whom our Championship ambitions could well depend.

Leinster supporters realised last week that, for all their emerging back-line talent, Johnny Sexton's fitness is crucial to their chances of European progress. Schmidt is fortunate to have the continuously progressing Paddy Jackson as a back-up of proven international competence but Sexton, and Conor Murray too, provide a fulcrum and drive that only world-class operators can. Sexton's recent injury record has to be a concern ahead of such a concentrated period of intense competition.

Eddie Jones' England are, deservedly, the bookies' favourites to retain their title, and while they possess a balance of forward power, athleticism and pace that allows them to play the game any number of ways, they are by no means unbeatable.

Serious questions remain over their on-field leadership, and while Jones has shown faith in Dylan Hartley this week, there'll be huge pressure on the captain. In recent seasons, with the emergence of the likes of Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola, the controlling influence of Owen Farrell, and a multitude of threatening outside backs, they've begun to look like realistic World Cup contenders in 2019.

One of the hallmarks of the Schmidt era has been his capacity to devise and implement a game-plan that allows us to perform when it really matters. There's no doubt that the team will perform to a high level, but whether it's enough is down to the challenge presented by the opponents of the day.

The growing prominence of the women's game was indicated midweek by a joint media launch with the men's event, and Niamh Briggs and her colleagues have a big year ahead with Ireland hosting the Women's World Cup later in the year.

Their Six Nations runs in tandem with that of their male counterparts and while the glory days of recent seasons may be in the past, they'll be looking to their home games against the traditional 'big two' of France and England to set them up for a successful summer tournament.

It's an exciting time of year for any rugby fan, even the more cynical, and it should be a fascinating seven weeks. Let the games begin.

Sunday Indo Sport

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