Sport Rugby

Friday 23 February 2018

Quick start for Slam assault

Air of optimism surrounds Joe Schmidt's maiden Six Nations but wins over Scotland and Wales are essential

Dragon slayer: Rob Kearney tackles Leigh Halfpenny during Ireland’s victory over Wales at the Millennium Stadium last year. STEPHEN McCARTHY/SPORTSFILE
Dragon slayer: Rob Kearney tackles Leigh Halfpenny during Ireland’s victory over Wales at the Millennium Stadium last year. STEPHEN McCARTHY/SPORTSFILE
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

JUST like the drizzling rain and the bite of the cold, you can feel the Six Nations in the air this week. As regular as the trains that rumble underneath the West Stand at Lansdowne Road, the old juggernaut comes around to lift those January blues and offers hope to rugby fans across the participating countries, all dreaming of better things to come for their team.

Often, the build-up to the opening round is the best part. Potential sings out from the squad lists, team speculation leads to rows in the pub and hope springs eternal.

After round one, three will have fallen and we will have a decent idea of how the hierarchy is shaping up.


The teams left standing will begin to allow their minds to drift to thoughts of Grand Slams, while repeating the mantra of 'one game at a time.'

It will all roll on from city to city, providing tourism euros and packed stadia as week by week the contenders fall by the wayside.

One will be left standing come March 16, with all six coaches at this moment believing that they can guide their team to the promised land. In this era of regular Slams, they will dream big.

Joe Schmidt joins the club for the first time this week and the sense of public optimism around his team belies Ireland's status as fourth favourites and the fact that they face their traditionally difficult bi-annual schedule (England and France away) without their best player in Sean O'Brien.

Since taking over the reins last summer, the Ireland coach has been trying to manage the expectation as much as his team, but the performance in the final November Test against New Zealand has increased the hope that the recent slump could be over.

Although they let the result slip on that heartbreaking Sunday afternoon, there was a real sense of the fans falling in love with the team again after years of provincial success eating into the national team's popularity.

Despite the lack of England or France to attract the numbers, the IRFU have managed to sell out all three home games, while the fact that they have managed to retain the seven out-of-contract front-liners and the success of three of the four provinces in Europe have also added to the feel-good factor.

But, we've been here before. Consistency remains the watchword for an Irish team who have produced big games in the past and not been able to back it up.

Beating Scotland and Wales in the opening six-day period would help assuage any doubts about their abilities, but it won't be easy.

Last season, Declan Kidney's team dismantled the eventual winners in 42 minutes of glorious Simon Zebo flicks and Brian O'Driscoll passes at the Millennium Stadium. But they finished that game defending their own line and continued on the back foot for the rest of the tournament.

That victory was probably the highlight of 2013, given after that Ireland lost all of their games to top-tier nations and only beat the United States, Canada and Samoa.

Still, there was something in that final autumn Test that reawakened the feeling that the appointment of Schmidt and the ability to keep Ireland's players fit can lead to great things and, apart from O'Brien, Keith Earls and the luckless Stephen Ferris, most of the key men are reporting for duty fit and in form.

Ireland's campaign looks to hang on week two and the visit of Warren Gatland's champions. Negotiating their way past a Scotland team who beat them last year won't be easy, but Ireland should win their opening game.


Then will come the increase in hype as the Lions fall-out will no doubt rear its ugly head and the old debates will resurface around whether O'Driscoll and Jamie Heaslip should have been dropped, whether so many Welsh players deserved their place in Gatland's team and all the rest.

It's probably just as well it's a short lead-in to that game, even though Schmidt has aired his fears about taking on this huge Welsh outfit with so little preparation.

As his opposite number pointed out last week, the away team tends to get the upper hand in these affairs and, while their club game is in crisis, the national side remains in rude health, despite another disappointing November.

As Schmidt says, though, autumn form is a notoriously poor indicator for the Six Nations.

If Ireland manage to navigate their way through that hectic opening week, then they get a breather before heading to Twickenham to face a youthful England side who are building towards their 'home' World Cup.

Ireland's record in London over the 2000s helped to sustain the remarkable consistency of that decade, but the memory of the St Patrick's Day massacre of 2012 looms large over their hopes.

It is a reminder of the precarious nature of Ireland's fortunes and the reliance on the fitness of several players.

Jonathan Sexton's hamstring pull was a major factor in last season's collapse, while Mike Ross remains the cornerstone on which the whole team is built. Paddy Jackson, Ian Madigan, Marty Moore and Rodney Ah You are developing as cover, but the day when an injury to Ireland's key players doesn't have a majorly negative impact on the team remains some way off.


O'Brien's absence will force a re-think on ball-carrying as Ireland need to replicate the Carlow man's ability to get over the gainline, while Earls will be missed. However, the wing and back-row are areas where Schmidt has considerable back-up.

Given that this is O'Driscoll's last campaign in the famed old tournament, there should be an extra incentive to give the legendary outside-centre the send-off his contribution to Irish rugby deserves.

How fitting that it all ends in Paris, where the highlight of a decade and a half of brilliance took place back in 2000.

At that stage we will know which French team will turn up and perform in this year's campaign. Philippe Saint Andre's outfit finished bottom of the table last season, but they are among the bookies' favourites this time.

The French union negotiated last weekend off for the internationals, which will help ahead of their opening game against England, but the loss of Thierry Dusautoir deprives an inexperienced side of one of their key leaders.

France generally perform strongly in a post-Lions year, winning the title in 2002, 2006 and 2010, but whether this crop are up to the task remains to be seen.

We'll know more come St Patrick's weekend. The Six Nations has a habit of making predictions look silly, but much will depend on the Stade de France visit of Stuart Lancaster's side, with the winner of that game looking likely favourites for the competition as a whole.

Schmidt is targeting a place in the top two and, given his record as a winner, has his eyes on the big prize, but given Ireland's record in recent years and the post-2009 Grand Slam decline, three home wins and a scalp away would represent a fine return.

A big send-off for O'Driscoll and signs that there will be life after the great man ahead of next year's World Cup would be positive, but expectations should be kept in line with previous performances.

Much will depend on the next eight days and the game against Wales.

The next eight weeks will be unforgiving, but momentum can get you through the relentless schedule and if Ireland can gain that with wins over Scotland and Wales, then anything is possible.

The build-up is all about the dream, but the reality can be crushing.

Bring it on.


Irish Independent

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