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Let's hope we can excel when push comes to shove

ITALY are traditionally at their strongest, and most interested, on the opening weekend of the Six Nations to the extent that it has often been on that weekend that they perform best and achieve their rare victories. Next weekend, though, will not be one of those occasions.

That's not to say that they won't pose a problem for Ireland, because they will, specifically in the confrontation between the two sets of forwards.

It's probably fair to say that over the past number of years whenever there have been concerns about Ireland's pack being outmuscled by the opposition, it has generally centred around our forwards' ability, or lack of, to win a sufficient supply of playable possession from a solid scrum. One of the abiding memories of last weekend's Heineken Cup games was of Northampton's almost total destruction of the Munster scrum in the opening hour of the game until, ironically, Paul O'Connell's sin-binning by his new-found best friend, referee Romain Poite.

When taken in conjunction with Leinster's difficulties in the same area against London Irish, it has to be a source of real concern, particularly in the light of the scrimmaging power and physicality of the Italians.

Defeat is not on the cards, but if the Italians manage to show up Ireland's scrum, it will only add to Declan Kidney's problems facing into a trip to Paris the very next weekend.

I don't wish to denigrate the man or his achievements, but John Hayes looks as if he is going to struggle in this year's tournament. At 36, and playing in the most attritional position on the field, he has amassed a remarkable 97 caps, with only four earned coming off the bench, not to mention that in the majority of the games he lasted the full 80 minutes. But, on Hayes's current form, and taken in tandem with a number of other factors, Ireland's scrum looks set to struggle.

Cian Healy has made great progress and looks like he will be a fixture in this Ireland team for a long time to come, but he will nonetheless come in for more than his share of attention from opposition front rows who will consider him somewhat 'green' at international level. He must, among other things, temper his propensity to concede silly penalties. He may well be inexperienced, statistically, at international level, and endured a rough baptism in November at the hands of Springbok BJ Botha and Wallaby Ben Alexander; it should also be remembered that in last year's Heineken Cup final in Edinburgh he performed well against Martin Castrogiovanni, who will surely have something to prove next week.

Just who will be between Hayes and Healy in the front row is unclear, given the question marks over Jerry Flannery and Rory Best.

An important point worth making about the effectiveness of a scrum is that while the scrummaging abilities of those wearing jerseys one and three is of obvious importance, the same should also be said of those in jerseys two, four and five. Much has been made of the near-miraculous, and ultimately match-winning, improvement in Munster's scrum last week coinciding as it did with O'Connell's spell in the bin and the improvement was indeed striking.

Hopefully I'm overstating the situation, but while the signs from the south aren't good, it's difficult to imagine that their travails are all down to Paul McCarthy's pre-season departure from the position of scrum coach.

The back five of the scrum practically picks itself with Donncha O'Callaghan, O'Connell, Stephen Ferris, David Wallace, and Jamie Heaslip as near to certainties as there can be in a team coached by Declan Kidney.

The real debate will centre around the bench, with particular interest in the replacement prop and back-row. Personally, I see Mike Ross as the player most likely to be Hayes's eventual successor and it is for that reason that I would include him in the 22. While Tom Court has performed well for Ulster this season, and showed strong signs of improvement having, like Hayes, come late to the sport, Ross would be my personal choice and I hope his appearance on the bench in Bath today is for the purpose of giving him some badly needed game-time.

In the back row, it looks to be a straight shoot-out between Leinster duo Sean O'Brien and Shane Jennings for the bench in the absence of Denis Leamy, with O'Brien having made his international debut during Jennings's recent suspension. If I were to have a punt on who might get the nod, I'd go for O'Brien, given his capacity to function as a real impact sub, while also offering more cover across the back row.

Overall, though, the scrum is my biggest worry ahead of this year's championship. While the back row did experience some difficulties in November, the fact is that none of the other five nations possess a groundhog of the quality of Pocock or Brussow and, as such, it's not an area of undue concern. The same applies to the lineout, with the fitness of Flannery the only possible worry, which is why 80 minutes from Rory Best today would be a big bonus.

That 'forwards win games, backs merely determine the margin of the victory' is a truism beloved of those who have toiled at the coalface. The scrum's relevance in the modern game is crucial and our provinces have been forced to use it as a passive method of containment rather than a weapon of superiority. In this Six Nations, our hope must be that the national unit proves much more effective than the sum of its constituent parts.


Sunday Independent