Saturday 24 March 2018

Six Nations: Strength in depth can give Irish valuable momentum

Ireland have enough quality to whet appetite for next weekend's main course, says Jim Glennon

Jim Glennon

This afternoon's kick-off against Scotland in the opening game of the Six Nations mightn't quite get the pulses racing as it once did but, make no mistake, as yesterday's action showed, the excitement amongst the supporters is still there.

The quality may vary from time to time, but it's difficult to beat that annual feeling of anticipation as January is consigned to the past; all the more so this year, in the light of the positivity emanating from Ireland's November performance against New Zealand.

The argument can be made that heroism in defeat no longer satisfies the more sophisticated palate of the new generation of Irish rugby supporter, accustomed as they are to a regular diet of provincial success in Europe, but it must be accepted that the current New Zealand team is no ordinary one, even by their remarkable standards.

In that context, Ireland's performance was heroic, and probably would have been of sufficient quality to cope with the challenges presented by any of our northern hemisphere opponents.

Admittedly, the opening two games of the November series were a disappointment but there's sufficient evidence to indicate that neither were the primary focus of that campaign. So a reality-based optimism, along with the old adage that 'you're only as good as your last game', should be allowed to prevail.

Emotion, and probably fear too, were major factors in the level of performance Joe Schmidt managed to extract from his team that day and, with every possible respect to our Celtic cousins, it will be difficult to reach the same levels today against Scott Johnson's Scotland.

They come to town after defeats to Australia and South Africa in November (they did beat Japan) and while they can be expected to provide a stiff challenge, they should not rival Ireland in terms of quality, particularly from the bench.

For a team that has been so missing game-breakers of genuine international quality for almost as long as we can remember, the return of Stuart Hogg from injury is a major boost. He will need to be watched closely, and along with Sean Maitland and Sean Lamont, forms a potent back three. Just what ball they have to play with remains to be seen but it can be expected that they'll be brought into play at every opportunity.

For a number of years now, the Irish forward unit hasn't demonstrated a capacity to physically dominate opponents and they'll face another hardy front-five unit this afternoon. A gritty front-row, and the thoroughly unglamorous Jim Hamilton in the second-row, will relish having a cut off the Irish forwards, particularly at scrum and maul.

The much underrated Hamilton was one of the top second-rows in last year's tournament and while not a big 'name', and usually in a losing team too, he rarely fails to leave his mark on a game.

If Glasgow No 8 Ryan Wilson, starting on the blindside on his tournament debut, is something of a surprise selection, the inclusion of David Denton ahead of Johnnie Beattie at No 8 certainly fits into that category too; the combination of both smacks of something of a strategic gamble on Johnson's part.

For Ireland, the openside flanker position has been, in Seán O'Brien's absence, the recent talking-point and although it's likely to have been a close call between Tommy O'Donnell and Chris Henry, the more experienced Ulsterman has won out. Hugely effective defensively with his trademark choke tackles, often in tandem with Rory Best, his international career has never really taken off and today provides a big opportunity for him.

While the Scots will fancy their chances in the scrum, Ireland should have the edge elsewhere, right across the pitch. Mike Ross has had young Marty Moore breathing down his neck and while Ross retains possession of the jersey here, what Moore has shown this season has been of such quality that we could well see him overtake his provincial team-mate sooner rather than later.

If the regrettable absence of O'Brien has thrown up opportunities for others, it also leaves something of a void in Ireland's ball-carrying armoury. Momentum is critical in this tournament and Schmidt will see today as a real opportunity in this regard. If Ireland are to avoid getting into an arm-wrestle with Hamilton and Co, then they must get over the gainline in the narrow channels.

Cian Healy, Peter O'Mahony and Jamie Heaslip, and to a lesser extent Paul O'Connell, will be the designated carriers and they have the ability to get the job done. If the pack delivers in this regard

and on the gainline, and also achieves equality at the set-pieces, then we should manage the crucial opening win, together with its consequential momentum.

It's all set up for a great tournament. Precisely where we stand after the performance against New Zealand is difficult to know; no more than the single swallow that ne'er a summer made, one game, regardless of the quality of the opposition, doesn't define a team.

We need only cast our minds back to the sentiment following the win in Cardiff in last season's corresponding game for ample evidence of the frailty, in the sporting context, of the human mind – and particularly the mindset, not always in close touch with reality, of the perennially-optimistic Irish rugby supporter. That said, however, we should win today.

While we can be assured that the players will be totally focused on the job at hand, for supporters this is merely the appetiser for next week's main course and the visit of Warren Gatland, Sam Warburton, and Wales.

Presumptuous and complacent – probably – but wouldn't life be dull without the occasional whiff of cordite?

Irish Independent

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