But two wins in first eight days may well kick-start a welcome tilt at Grand Slam, says Jim Glennon
Is it stretching things – so early in the season particularly – to say that the Six Nations is a shadow of its former self?
Until now, the European activity of the provinces has dominated the attention of the rugby-supporting public. Ireland's chances in the tournament have received little attention and are of correspondingly little interest. Only Declan Kidney's surprise decision to promote Jamie Heaslip to captain ahead of Brian O'Driscoll managed to break Europe's dominance of our attentions. Even now, a week from the start and with the Heineken Cup parked until April, Jonny Sexton's departure from Leinster is the primary topic of conversation.
And this in an odd year, when England and France pay us a visit – something that usually gives us a greater chance of success, and especially so this year when, if we are to believe the spin, we have the momentum of a good autumn series propelling us forward. Championship success, and ideally our third Grand Slam, is always a prospect in odd years, isn't it?
With Wales first up in Cardiff next Saturday, momentum will be key and will be multiplied in the event of success against a Welsh outfit coming off a disastrous November (four losses from four outings).
We welcome England the following week, and while Sunday afternoons in Dublin 4 aren't always conducive to a raucous atmosphere, the sight of the red rose will certainly stoke the fires; two wins from two after eight days is by no mean impossible.
This game is the annual jewel in the crown, and of even greater significance this time when one considers that Kidney is essentially playing for a new contract. Win or lose in Cardiff, this game is pivotal to his season, and to his future. In this context, his decisions of recent weeks should be looked at from a slightly different angle; there are hints, through an evolving leadership line-up, of at least one eye on World Cup 2015.
The confirmation of Heaslip as captain points to a calculated reinvigoration of a set-up which, prior to the autumn victory over Argentina, had shown signs of near-stagnation.
I was critical of the changeover in captaincy, not so much as a reflection on Heaslip – though I remain unconvinced – but more to do with the manner in which it was handled. Arguably our greatest ever player – and definitely our longest-serving and most successful captain – deserved a more dignified departure from the role.
I wish Heaslip well, though, and sincerely hope that I'm being unfair to him when I ascribe more relevance to his captaincy performance against South Africa than that against Argentina.
The lower-profile appointment of Enda McNulty as psychologist to the squad is a telling one, and well worthy of comment. Those who have worked closely with Kidney attest to his capacity for man-management and understanding the psychology of his players, and identify it as a major strength throughout his career.
McNulty's appointment could reflect a weakening in the relationship between coach and players, a big majority of whom aren't from Munster, in itself a new dimension in the group's evolution. An All- Ireland football winner with Armagh, McNulty has been working successfully with individuals and groups, including Leinster, for several years. In this instance, however, his relationship with the coach will be as important as that with the players, and possibly even more so.
The tournament itself is in dire need of revitalisation. The current discussion about bonus points is, to me, a no-brainer, as is the return of all games to Saturday afternoons, even if that means staggered kick-offs.
The Italian experiment is a slower burner than anticipated, and a reinvigorated Scotland would be as welcome as it is unlikely. Wales remain a conundrum, England highly promising and France my most likely, although they must travel to Twickenham. Ireland? Well, we could be anything, I reckon, and those eight days at the start of February will dictate just what.
Disappointing as it may be that Sexton won't be playing club rugby here for the foreseeable future, I wish him well on such a lucrative move – an irresistible opportunity for anyone. I'd have no concerns either around his availability for the national team.
Finally, my team to start against Wales (with Kidney's anticipated selection in brackets): Kearney; Gilroy (Earls), O'Driscoll, Darcy, Zebo (Gilroy); Sexton, Murray; Healy, Best, Ross; McCarthy, Ryan; O'Brien, Henry, Heaslip. Replacements: Kilcoyne, Sherry (Cronin), Court, O'Callaghan, O'Mahony, Reddan, O'Gara, Earls.