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Alan Quinlan: 'Mood inside Ireland camp is genuinely energised but two key areas must function well against Scots'

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Iain Henderson during the Ireland Rugby captain's run at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Iain Henderson during the Ireland Rugby captain's run at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

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Iain Henderson pictured during the captain’s run yesterday. It will be interesting to see whether Henderson or James Ryan take the lead in calling the lineout having divvied up responsibilities last year. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Iain Henderson pictured during the captain’s run yesterday. It will be interesting to see whether Henderson or James Ryan take the lead in calling the lineout having divvied up responsibilities last year. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

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Iain Henderson during the Ireland Rugby captain's run at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

The cynics out there may doubt the sincerity, but it was by pure coincidence that I found myself on the periphery of the Irish training camp in the Algarve last week.

Spending a few days on the fairways - and in the rough - of Quinta do Lago is a welcome tonic and tradition at this time of year, an opportunity to stock up on Portuguese Vitamin D and take a few deep breaths ahead of a hectic spring.

I enjoy spending time at The Campus; it's a grand spot to get a bite to eat or a cup of tea and it just so happens that the same sports complex has recently become the Iberian equivalent of Carton House for our international rugby team.

The skies were blue and the weather was warm but I was still expecting to sense some sort of cloud hanging over the Irish camp when my path inevitably crossed with players and coaches.

Provincial rugby, while complicatedly woven into the international scene, is far enough removed from the trauma of Japan for players that it has been a source relief rather than a cause of further grief. Returning to the international fold, however, is bound to reawaken some dark and hollow feelings.

Relaxed after a morning of golf, I headed towards the catering end of The Campus with equal measures of trepidation and curiosity. I didn't know what to expect, but it turned out I needn't have been concerned.

Any player with half a poker face won't freely give up the notion that World Cup failings are still stinging, but at the same time I was taken by the sense of fun around the Irish camp.

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The body language of players and coaches, particularly away from the microphones and cameras, is something I always analyse during periods of preparation such as this, and I got the sense last week that players are genuinely energised by the prospect of a fresh start.

I suppose it's only natural to some extent; those who were on the front line in Japan will see this Six Nations as an opportunity to make amends, while those who felt short-changed by the old regime in terms of playing time will be optimistic that a chance to impress is coming.

I had just turned 34 when Declan Kidney got the Irish job in 2008. Some people may have felt my international days were numbered, but privately I rejoiced, certain that his appointment would change the perception of me under Eddie O'Sullivan - that I was no more than a squad player.

Deccie's first game in charge didn't exactly get the pulses of the public racing, even though the performance was commendable. A 55-0 victory against a lacklustre Canada outfit was light on insight, but it was memorable all the same; a rare opportunity to play international rugby in Thomond Park, and yours truly even crossed for a try late on - my sixth and final one for Ireland - after a slick backline move involving Peter Stringer, Paddy Wallace, Shane Horgan, Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe.

Leaving Limerick that night, I was full of optimism for the weeks and months ahead, even though the cap I earned for the following weekend's 22-3 Croke Park defeat to the All Blacks would turn out to be my 27th and final one.

Most professional athletes don't need much of a push to see the road forward through hopeful eyes; they wouldn't be in elite sport without steely resolve and granite confidence in their own ability.

The chronic pressure of the World Cup quarter-final hoodoo hampered Ireland heavily in Japan - Rory Best admitted as much - so perhaps the players now feel a weight has been lifted from around their necks.

And besides, considering the comparably rockier road Scottish rugby has travelled - and that was before the Finn Russell debacle - and their appalling recent record at Lansdowne Road, Irish eyes have every right to be smiling this week.

But, and this is a big caveat, it doesn't take long for the tide to turn. Yes, there is a demand for a more expansive game-plan, but results are still the primary measurement tool for progress.

A bit like his namesake Dessie with the Dubs, Andy Farrell simply hasn't had long enough in his new role to effect radical change, but there are enough alterations in the team selection, and those on the bench, to quench the thirst of those crying for regeneration.

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The mood music around the Ireland camp may be upbeat for now, but an underwhelming, drab opening performance - or worse still, a first defeat to Scotland at Lansdowne Road since 1998 - could turn that on its head before Farrell gets a chance to really implement any of his ideas.

The public will probably be a little less forgiving too should the lethargy of 2019 remain, with so many of the same faces still in situ - Richie Murphy, Farrell and Simon Easterby on the coaching staff, and 15 of the 23 players who featured in October's last-eight pummelling by New Zealand.

My pre-match focus naturally veers towards the forward-dominant facets of the game, and I do have a couple of concerns ahead of Farrell's opening night under lights - the lineout and the breakdown.

I am intrigued to see whether Iain Henderson or James Ryan takes the lead in calling the lineout having divvied up responsibilities last year. Rob Herring and Henderson have struggled for fluency from touch for Ulster, and that inaccuracy needs to be ironed out if Ireland are to dominate the Scots like they should.

When I selected my Ireland starting team in these pages last week, I hummed and hawed over my blindside option, with Peter O'Mahony and CJ Stander in a photo finish.

It was a marginal decision but I opted for O'Mahony, with Stander to come off the bench. The creaking Ulster lineout and the double breakdown threat of Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie make the Munster captain the ideal counter-weight for this game. His absence may be felt early on.

That being said, there is a nice balance to the Irish back-row that has been selected. Caelan Doris is a solid lineout option too as well being a gifted, ball-playing No 8, and his selection at the back of the scrum should allow Stander to do what he does best - carry often, tackle hard and work himself to a standstill.

Ireland should win this game well, but Scotland are hopping from one episode of adversity to another, and that can unite a team and focus the minds.

Gregor Townsend will be feeling the heat too; if this Six Nations campaign fails to lift Scottish rugby from the doldrums then his time at the helm will likely run out.

From an Irish perspective, I'm not desperate for a seismic shift in style just yet; greater anticipation and a willingness to go off-script on occasion would be welcome, but it's not necessary in the first week of February.

A performance reminiscent of the World Cup opener in Yokohama would do just fine, with a return of the tempo of 2018.

That would give everyone something to smile about.

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