Early engagements certain to carry health risks
Playing an expansive game from the word go is courting danger, writes Eddie Butler
Ireland in the Six Nations will have to cope without their most visible player of the last decade, Brian O'Driscoll. Wales have to manage without their often unseen flanker, Danny Lydiate. Ireland are trying to replace a player everyone can see; Wales have to wrap somebody else up in Lydiate's cloak of invisibility.
Lydiate is not hard to see in the flesh. Not so long ago, the tales of what Stephen Ferris was throwing around in the weights room seemed to confirm that once again Wales were going to yield on the strength front.
The arrival of Seán O'Brien and his bursting runs through tackles underlined Ireland's advantage in raw power.
But then Lydiate arrived. Or rather, he reappeared, without fanfare but with question marks over whether he should be playing at all after doing himself a serious neck injury playing for the Dragons in Perpignan in November 2007. It soon appeared he was more than back merely on his feet -- to stand next to the son of sheep-farming stock from Llandrindod Wells in Mid Wales was to be reassured that here were arms the size of Powys.
And at the World Cup he used them well, going low into the tackle to chop down Ireland's trio of ball-carriers: Ferris, Jamie Heaslip and, above all, Seán O'Brien. Old-fashioned leg tackles, as opposed to the choke-and-hold embraces that have become Ireland's speciality, where Paul O'Connell wraps up the victim at chest level and shouts "Maul, maul, maul" as loudly as he can at the referee. Both tackles work, but it was the Welsh denial of momentum to O'Brien that set up their advance to the World Cup semi-final.
So, what do Ireland do now that Lydiate is not playing? Do they relaunch their back-row against Sam Warburton, Toby Faletau and Ryan Jones and hope to make a breach, or at least tie up the unit that still carries clout without Lydiate? Or do they avoid the contact area in recognition of what happened in Wellington and look to increase the tempo immediately, rather than gradually, by allowing Jonathan Sexton to dictate play from 10 and bringing Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble into play as much as possible?
There is a problem with trying to bring a fresh approach to the championship, at least in the very first game. Across Europe there are now teams who are very much in the groove, happy with the rhythm they have established at the highest level of competition so far: Clermont, Toulouse, Munster, Leinster, Ulster, Edinburgh and Saracens in the Heineken Cup. But the pace of the tournament is still way below the Six Nations. It is the fact of life that makes the discussion of form so far in anything but the World Cup redundant.
The Six Nations starts and even seasoned players are rocked by the whirlwind of the contest. It happens every time and should be cherished as a sign of healthy intensity. But anybody looking to play expansively from the word go is courting danger. What teams may achieve in mid-March is an entirely different matter, but there has to be an acceptance that all may not go according to plan on the opening day.
Wales are slightly different in that they have no regional form on which to base anything. The Blues limped into the last eight of the Heineken Cup but seemed to grow more tentative the further they went in the pool games. Warren Gatland relies instead on his own camps to prepare for internationals. He has good access to his players but is working behind closed doors.
It's as if there's some hermetically sealed saloon bar brawl going on and you only get a glimpse when the doors part and through a cloud of dry ice an injured player staggers into the street and drops. Matthew Rees was the last to fall out, but there was Lydiate, slumped at the poker table.
The balance of the benefits of the Welsh system depends on how you view their World Cup performance: they were composed and aggressive and accurate against South Africa in their opening game, but they conceded a very early try and lost the game to a late one.
What will be occurring today? Ireland start as favourites because of home advantage and their shorter injury list, but it is the privately forged against the publicly honed, the low tacklers against the high, and anything could happen.
Sunday Indo Sport