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Frail scrum could cost Irish glory

Ireland will have to stiffen the resolve of their front-row at scrum time to hold any chance of retaining the Six Nations Championship, never mind putting back-to-back Grand Slams together for the first time since France in 1997-98.

If Declan Kidney could orchestrate a second successive five-card trick, Ireland would become the first country to achieve this status since the Five Nations turned into Six in 2000.

It is strange how the capture of the first Slam in 61 years can suddenly erase the many failures that preceded it. So many times Ireland were so close and, yet, so far.

It stands to reason that the next clean sweep will take some doing. The level of attrition absorbed and administered through the seven-week window, in between the Pool and knockout stages of the Heineken Cup, demands a special kind of attitude, attention to detail, endurance and execution.

Ireland's greatest roadblock to retaining the Championship is the serious question mark over the solidity of their scrum. In November, they were sent backwards faster than a retreating army against Australia and South Africa.



Quality

Everywhere else, Kidney is blessed with, at least, international quality and, at best, world-class exponents of the game. He even has the emerging Cian Healy, the fast-improving Tom Court and the recovered Marcus Horan -- he was not tested in the scrum by former Lansdowne and Trinity College tighthead Paul Doran Jones in the 'A' international yesterday -- to contest the loosehead position.

It is at numbers two and three that they suffer in comparison to the other nations. Luckily, they will be given the time to iron out any creases in their cohesion and technique by meeting Italy first next Saturday.

The Italians, without Sergio Parisse, provide the only guarantee of operating a winning game plan, even on the receiving end of a shellacking in the scrum. Who knows? Maybe, John Hayes can roll back the years one more time. But it is doubtful.

The problem at hooker is that the wonderfully reliable Jerry Flannery and Rory Best are short of the game time needed to have them in the fullness of their health.

The good news from yesterday's 'A' international 17-13 loss to England Saxons is that Best played superbly for the first-half before giving way to Leinster's John Fogarty.

He looked sharp in his basic duties at scrum and lineout, while making a prominent impact in the loose, most notably with ball in hand, which has not always been his forte.

There is every chance he will be parachuted into the Ireland squad for the Italian match next Saturday or, at worse, given a start in the 'A' international against Scotland next Friday night at Ravenhill.

This would leave the Ulster captain close to aerobically spot-on for an input into Ireland's crucial away dates in France (Saturday week) and England (Saturday, February 27). It goes without saying his strength in the scrum would be a God-send.

However, the greatest problem lies at number three. The most basic fact is that Leinster's Mike Ross, a Munster man, is the best scrummaging tighthead in Ireland. He has been hidden in his province because of his perceived limitations outside this tight area compared to Stan Wright and CJ van der Linde.

The Ireland-England Saxons 'A' international was the perfect opportunity for him to show his power where Ireland needs it most. But, Kidney chose to run with Tony Buckley, who has had more chances than a cat with nine lives.

The Irish backrow, alone, is overloaded with carrying power and dexterity. There is enough room for a hard-working, set-piece anchorman as back-up to Hayes on the bench.

It is difficult to get over the feeling that Ross's ill-advised, some would say plain stupid, lashing out at the ball, which handed London Irish victory in the RDS in October, has been forgiven but not forgotten by his club and, possibly, national coach.

The evidence from November suggests strongly that the ageless John Hayes is approaching the end of a stellar career. He will surely become the first Ireland player, barring injury, to reach 100 international caps.

However, Ireland have waited too long, been too benign, in putting game time into Ross as the only proven scrummager in this country. He earned a worthy reputation as Harlequins' strongman in the Guinness Premiership.

The English league is derided and mocked for any number of reasons, usually stemming from its lack of creativity, but never for its physical demands.

The former Cork Constitution cornerstone may not be the greatest player in the world. He may be a man of few talents. But, the talent he has for scrummaging is almost extinct in Ireland.

Maybe, Healy, Flannery and Hayes can make the adjustments required to ride out the storm that is sure to blow up all around them. If not Court, Best and Ross have the makings of white knights in the green jersey.

DES BERRY'S IRELAND XV (v Italy): R Kearney; T Bowe, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, K Earls; J Sexton, T O'Leary; C Healy, J Flannery, J Hayes, D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell, S Ferris, D Wallace, J Heaslip.


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