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Ireland must keep eyes on grand prize

NO matter what you attempt to achieve in life, if you get distracted in the lead-in you are sunk. You have to keep your focus on the ultimate goal -- the grand prize.

Student tours were always full of bonhomie and bonding, but when they got to the nightclub it was every man for himself and there was one individual who became known as the 'Highwayman' or 'Dick Turpin' due to his talent for swooping out of the blue and claiming the spoils.

A handsome rogue, 'Turpin' also had charm and a great eye for the gap. His modus operandi was to allow unfortunate colleagues spend time (false laughing, lame female humour) and money (buying numerous drinks) before slipping in and grabbing the girl while her initial suitor was on another trip to the bar.

When that designated dumb-ass (let's call him Fehily) returned to continue his courtship all he was left with was an unwanted bottle of Ritz and a deep sense of hurt and frustration.

That was heightened the following morning at breakfast when 'Turpin' swaggered over to the man whose grass he had cut the night before.

When, inevitably, he was asked how his nocturnal activities had progressed, the Highwayman would employ horse racing terminology in his crude reply.

Not that we're bitter.

The Six Nations kicks off this evening in Cardiff and there will be plenty of romance and desire to go with it. But the grand prize for Ireland remains the World Cup in seven months' time.

We have had nearly four years to recover from the calamity of France 2007 and the Grand Slam in 2009 was a significant step forward in that regard. However, the ultimate judgment for Declan Kidney and his team is whether they can reach the last four of the World Cup for the first time.

Even if Kidney was to land a second Grand Slam (and he has a decent shot at it if things fall into place), it will not smother the sense of disappointment should Ireland flop out at the quarter-final stage in New Zealand. That may seem excessively harsh, but history proves the point.

Eddie O'Sullivan may not have managed a Grand Slam, but he had a superb Six Nations record as Ireland coach between 2002 and 2007 which read: Played 30, won 22, lost eight.

That provided an excellent win ratio of 73.33pc, with 798 points scored against 599 conceded, incorporating 84 tries at nearly three a game.

Yet, those impressive statistics counted for nought when measured against Ireland's disastrous 2007 World Cup effort. O'Sullivan's record had earned him a contract extension prior to the tournament, but when he returned home he had lost the goodwill battle and was gone by the following spring.

And that is just Ireland. Look through the other nations and there are numerous examples of coaches getting the chop after failed World Cup campaigns with New Zealand's Graham Henry the notable exception last time out.

This Six Nations is a means to an end. A Grand Slam would be fantastic as a World Cup springboard -- as England proved in 2003 -- but it is not the be-all, end-all.

England, France, Scotland and Wales are all capable of doing a number on Ireland, but if Kidney loses one or two fixtures, it does not mean there should be a knee-jerk, hysterical response and calls for dramatic change.


Of course, if Ireland were to lose those four matches or, God forbid, be done over by the Italians in Rome tomorrow, then there would be justifiable reason for panic, but the indications are that Kidney is about to oversee a decent Six Nations showing.

It may not include silverware, but that is not the issue. The imperative is to come out of this competition with reasons to be positive, namely a defined style of attacking play, a solid set-piece and a squad with enough proven depth to instil confidence heading into the summer warm-up games and then on to New Zealand.

The mantra from all the Six Nations camps is that the World Cup is not overshadowing this tournament, but the reality is that New Zealand 2011 overshadows everything else. Rugby now operates in four-year cycles and what comes in between, no matter how compelling, is all geared towards the main event.

Ireland and Kidney will have their good and not so good moments in this Six Nations, but, whatever unfolds, the grand prize remains the same. New Zealand 2011 is where they must stand and deliver.

Irish Independent