Jim Glennon: A certain confidence missing for Ireland ahead of Six Nations
The Six Nations is just a week away, squads have already spent a week in camp, and the annual London media launch took place midweek - normally a time of tangible anticipation and excitement, but this one has a different feel to it.
Put simply, it's hard to escape the feeling that we're in a state of flux. Wales visit the Aviva next Sunday and while previewing the game, or indeed anticipating the challenges facing Joe Schmidt and his team in the following weeks is never an easy task - this year it's more difficult than ever.
Over the past 15 years, we've drawn confidence from the strength of our provinces as we assess our capacity to compete with European peers at international level. Crops of players came and went, and while the relative strength of each of the provinces shifted over time, we could bank on at least two of the four performing strongly.
Facing into the 2016 tournament, and aiming for an unprecedented third successive Championship victory after hard-earned wins in each of Schmidt's first two seasons, that sense of confidence is markedly absent, and indeed difficult to muster - or maybe it's just me!
Affairs on the pitch coupled with our weakened purchasing power in the transfer market, and an increasingly questionable modus operandi in negotiations, mean that the shift of focus to the international sphere brings something of a respite, despite the lingering memory of Argentina, Cardiff, and World Cup 2015. Having said that, however, it remains extremely difficult to know what to expect not just from next Sunday's visit of Wales, but from the wider tournament too.
Thankfully, while public confidence may be at something of a low ebb, those inside the camp will have no such issues. Despite Peter O'Mahony, Tommy Bowe, and Iain Henderson lending regrettable star quality to the injured list, and Paul O'Connell disappearing over the horizon permanently, the annual infusion of new blood will have already freshened things up. Faces always change and the focus always turns to the next challenge. Those absent or moved on are quickly forgotten by those who remain in situ - plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose . . .
The appointment of Rory Best as captain, universally welcomed and rightly so, is a good one. The manner in which he conducts himself is admired and respected by all, and he's a top-class player too. With Dylan Hartley, his English hooking counterpart, getting the nod from Eddie Jones as English captain, their head-to-head in Twickenham certainly won't lack spice.
At the time of writing, the bookmakers have Ireland and Wales installed as joint second-favourites at 11/4 to win the championship outright, with Eddie Jones' England favourites, while Ireland are 3-point favourites for next weekend's match-up.
As punters will readily attest, the layers are rarely wrong and, despite the mood music around Irish rugby at the minute, the logic in such a spread is evident, regardless of the line-up of absentees, as more often than not in recent times we've had the measure of the Welsh, and the tournament's first round is undoubtedly the most opportune time to meet Warren Gatland & Co.
While the Welsh coach is a master of the art of bringing a team together and generating serious momentum, the ability of his Irish counterparts to craft a game plan and specific plays, while instilling maximum confidence in their charges, is well proven too. Crucially, however, major question marks exist in some key areas, and particularly in the scrum.
Mike Ross' injury struggles, coupled with the torn hamstring suffered by Marty Moore in Coventry last weekend, represent something of a perfect storm at tighthead prop. While it's possible that Ross will see some game-time later in the tournament, a competition-starting roster in this key position, for so long the unchallenged domain of John 'Bull' Hayes, comprised of Nathan White, Tadhg Furlong and Finlay Bealham is some way short of ideal. Even allowing for Furlong's undoubted quality and potential, and White's experience, the absence of Ross and Moore should represent a major opportunity for any international opponent.
Immediately behind them, with the talismanic O'Connell's days in green at an end and the injury-enforced absences of Henderson and Dan Tuohy, the identity of Devin Toner's partner appears very much up for debate. Donnacha Ryan has undoubted pedigree at international level but Mike McCarthy's industry and physicality have been eye-catching in recent weeks and may well have done enough to earn him a recall to the starting line-up. The durability of that entire front-five unit will be tested in the extreme, and their response, in tandem with management's selection and timing of their replacements, will be pivotal to our hopes for the duration of the entire campaign.
Elsewhere, with Jones and Guy Noves now in situ with England and France respectively, at least one of these sleeping giants will surely re-awaken this year, with the former appearing to have more resources at his disposal. From our perspective, however, both trips remain as challenging as ever, and bring into sharp relief the full merit of our 2014 Championship achievement, when we also had to visit both.
Having said all that, and without even contemplating Italy or a resurgent Scotland at this juncture, one move, one score, or one win could get the show on the road and create the vital momentum; as I've said, those within the camp won't be lacking belief and the prospect of a tilt at a third successive outright win will focus the minds further.
Whether the manner of our World Cup exit will result in an adaptation of the team's style of play will be of interest too. Most, if not all, would agree that a more expansive style and a further development of the collective skill-set is a necessity, based on what we saw from the top teams in the autumn. Whatever else may be happening within the game, on-field or off it, one absolute constant remains - results, rather than style, remain paramount.
A win next week will generate that vital momentum for the campaign that lies ahead - for either side - and it will almost certainly be a tight, cat-and-mouse affair. As much as I'd like to come down on the side of an Irish win, it's nigh on impossible to call.
The bookies have a 3-point margin, and I'd have it even tighter. The extent to which we've to rely on our already-drained reserves could well be the deciding factor.
Sunday Indo Sport