A S WE get set for this year's Six Nations Championship, I must state that I'm a traditionalist. By that I mean that I see this championship as an end in itself.
It's often viewed, particularly in World Cup years, as a means to an end, the end being a good World Cup performance. But that is to ignore just how important this competition is too and each of the teams will know that ahead of next weekend's kick-off.
That is not to say that you stick your head in the sand. Putting things into context, there is a number of talking points at the moment surrounding the build-up to the competition. In no particular order, I'm thinking of Munster's failure to qualify for the Heineken Cup knockout stages, Leinster's installation as the bookies' favourites for the competition and of course the re-emergence of Ulster from a dark decade.
The other bit of context is that 2011 is an odd year, meaning that we have France and England both at home. Traditionally, that presents us with a better opportunity to take the Six Nations crown.
However, there is a mini injury crisis in the Ireland camp at present so it's probably good that we have those two at home. What is definitely very fortunate for Declan Kidney is that the opening game is against Italy -- even if it is away.
Because of their scarce resources the Italians are usually at their best at the start of the championship, particularly when playing at home. But if we are to consider Ireland as a team with ambitions of winning this competition, then not messing up in Rome -- even without Tommy Bowe and Jamie Heaslip in particular -- is not much to expect. Without that opening win then I would go as far as to say that we have no justifiable aspirations for the remainder of the year.
We can expect the usual rough and tumble up front but Italy simply don't have the quality in the jerseys at number 9-23.
Ireland's main worry from an injury point of view is Heaslip's ankle. Everyone will be hoping that he makes a recovery post-Italy and plays a role in the latter stages because he has been a key element of the team for the last few years.
France will come to the Aviva then in what could well be a frightfully unusual atmosphere due to the fact the game is taking place at 3.0pm on a Sunday.
The reaction of the crowd and the players to the kick-off time will be interesting to gauge and will add to the unpredictability of the entire day. A result here is certainly a possibility. The problem -- apart that is from our own injury concerns -- is that we just don't know what France will be like over the next six or seven weeks.
England on the other hand are a far more predictable outfit and with the development of their younger players, particularly Chris Ashton and Ben Foden, they will give the ball plenty of air and will test the parameters of the pitch at the Aviva. That game will take place on the final weekend of the tournament, St Patrick's week, and it could well turn out to be an absolute cracker with a lot hanging on it.
Scotland and Wales, both away, will also present significant challenges. Scotland have advanced considerably, as we discovered last year when we came undone against them. And Warren Gatland's Wales will combine the sublime with the sometimes ridiculous.
When it comes down to selection, there are some glaringly obvious ones that need to be made. Leinster duo Sean O'Brien and Mike Ross are front-runners in my book. O'Brien has been outstanding, both at Magners League and Heineken Cup level, so far this season. And despite his omission from the autumn series, he has forced Kidney into a situation where it is simply a question of which jersey to give him: six, seven or eight.
I alluded last week to the coach's requirement for balance in the back row and that is a judgement that only Kidney can make. He knows exactly the kind of game he wants to play and will therefore construct his back row accordingly. For what it's worth, I believe O'Brien can play in any of the three positions and is ahead of David Wallace for the number seven jersey.
Similarly, there should be no doubt about the selection of Mike Ross, another inexplicable absentee from the autumn series. The modern game, even with all the adaptations to the laws, still has a fundamental requirement for a tightly-anchored scrum at the very least and, if possible, a scrum superior to the opposition's.
We haven't had a superior scrum for several years now and it is possible that Ross could deliver this. His form for Leinster indicates that he will deliver an anchor for us where there has previously been a void.
Another question mark will be over Paul O'Connell's partner in the second row and here a combination of Leo Cullen's return from injury (another absentee from the closed season) and a decline in Donncha O'Callaghan's form should see Cullen installed alongside O'Connell.
Scrumhalf is another tight one, particularly in the context of the current injury list. Whatever choice Kidney makes it will be sure to raise a few eyebrows in certain camps.
Gavin Duffy lined out on Friday for the Wolfhounds and is the most recognised fullback available and it appears he will be Kidney's first choice for that position.
In Grand Slam year, 2009, the lack of injuries was a major component in the Irish formula for success. The Six Nations hasn't even started yet and already Ireland are being tested severely in this area. Taking that into consideration, it looks like the Six Nations may well turn out to be an interesting and informative exercise for those who prefer to see the World Cup as their holy grail.
Sunday Indo Sport