Sport Six Nations

Monday 18 December 2017

Ruaidhri O'Connor: Grand Slam decider on the cards if Ireland can hold nerve

Six Nations looks more competitive than ever but Schmidt's men will fancy chances

In 2016, Joe Schmidt introduced 18 new caps and while some of them have been stored away for future use, there are enough gems to suggest that there is real depth in all but a few departments. Photo: Sportsfile
In 2016, Joe Schmidt introduced 18 new caps and while some of them have been stored away for future use, there are enough gems to suggest that there is real depth in all but a few departments. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

If you can't be bullish after a November like that, when can you?

Ireland have rarely come into a Six Nations in such fine fettle. Fourteen of their perceived first-choice XV are fit, Munster and Leinster are buoyant, they beat South Africa, New Zealand and Australia in their last seven games and their world-class coach is sufficiently confident to have signed a new contract that takes him through to 2019.

In 2016, Joe Schmidt introduced 18 new caps and while some of them have been stored away for future use, there are enough gems to suggest that there is real depth in all but a few departments.

Ireland have won two of the last three Championships and can put last season's disappointing third-place finish down to injuries, a post-World Cup lull and transition.

A year ago, doom and gloom abounded after yet another quarter-final defeat, but now the world looks rosy again. The only potential problem is the Red Rose looming on March 18.

Ireland's challenge is to negotiate their way through a tricky but manageable fixture list in order to be in a position to win the title, and possibly the Grand Slam, by beating England on the day after St Patrick's Day.

If the stars align, both teams will be going for the clean sweep a la 2003 when Clive Woodward's team confirmed their World Cup credentials by blowing Ireland away to take the title.

If that happens, Eddie Jones' 2017 edition will be looking to break New Zealand's recently set record of 18 Test wins in succession.

Having ended the All Blacks' run, what Irish player wouldn't relish the challenge of doing the same for their neighbours?

Events, however, may intervene.

England are weakened by injuries and while they preserved their 100pc record in the autumn, they looked more vulnerable than they had when sweeping Australia in June.

Rob

The loss of the Vunipola brothers in particular rob them of their point of difference and, while they boast more depth than arguably any nation in the world, there are only so many absentees a team can take.

They face France at home first, before visiting Cardiff in Round Two. Win those games and they'll more than fancy their chances of retaining their title for the first time since 2001.

At the same time, Ireland will be negotiating two of their tricky three away games, and the opener against Scotland in Murrayfield represents arguably the greatest stumbling block to their momentum.

In Vern Cotter's final campaign, the Scots are perhaps the dark horses for this competition. They feel they owe Ireland one, while the Glasgow Warriors v Munster rivalry will add spice, and the Scots will feel that if they can get off to a winning start then they could take France away and Wales at home and go to England in round four on a roll.

Cotter has stated his ambition to finally get one over his close friend and former colleague Schmidt, who he is yet to beat at international level.

Beat Scotland and the world opens up for Ireland, who would back themselves to win in Rome and take France in Dublin before travelling to Cardiff, the scene of the crime where their 2015 Grand Slam got away from them.

For all of the increasing depth, there is still a small group of players who Schmidt cannot afford to lose, while the ongoing questions over Johnny Sexton's durability persist into yet another campaign.

Schmidt described Wales as a sleeping giant and for all that they are being written off because Warren Gatland is on Lions secondment, they won the title the last time Rob Howley was in charge and have a squad packed full of experienced campaigners.

Ireland's Round Four game in Cardiff kicks off at 8.05 on a Friday night just to add to the theatre.

France, meanwhile, showed signs of resurgence in November but their injury list rivals England's and amazingly they haven't finished in the top half of the table since 2011.

Guy Noves will have access to his players throughout the eight-week block and, crucially, he will choose which players are released back to the clubs on the down weeks, thus reducing the fatigue factor.

Yet, the evidence of the Champions Cup is that the French-based players are still well off the highest level when it comes to fitness, and that could cost them against England in Round One.

Conor O'Shea's Italy are perhaps the least known and certainly the least talked about quantity. The former Ireland full-back is determined to restore some pride in the Azzurri, yet it's hard to see where he'll find a scalp to take.

Those are the six teams, but there is a seventh factor at play and it could have just as much influence as a powerful English maul led by Maro Itoje, a big French scrum anchored on Rabah Slimani, a moment of magic from Stuart Hogg, a Sean O'Brien carry or a Dan Biggar penalty.

It's the referees of course, who are already too influential at all levels of rugby and whose interpretations of the World Rugby guidelines around high tackles are a topic of conversation in all of the camps ahead of the tournament.

Wales had Nigel Owens in last week, while Wayne Barnes and JP Doyle have visited England, and Schmidt is on top of things with Ireland.

However, he is concerned at the potential variance in interpretation.

"Prior to the November Series, we got some very clear images and footage from the referees saying, 'This is not going to be tolerated any more, the sanction is going to be this'," Schmidt said of the zero-tolerance approach to head-high tackles.

"So it was very, very clear. We showed it to players, we said, 'Look, we cannot afford for this to happen'.

"There was a lot of frustration through the November Series from an inconsistency in how that was applied, whether that be from a referee or TMO (television match official).

"It will balance back up again, but we need to look after players and like the high ball thing, it is looking after players now.

"Yes, you can go out and have a contest, the ball is there to be contested, that's what rugby is.

"But you can't put somebody in danger and even if it's accidental, if you are up high in the tackle then you run a risk. . . if you generate force into that tackle with a shoulder or a swinging arm you magnify the risk.

"There is no law change, there's nothing different in the laws, it's really just saying: 'This has always been outlawed, we've probably relaxed a bit too much on it, we need to pull that back and then we'll probably find that happy medium again'.

"Now, we'll be watching it with interest in the other games and seeing how they go, we've watched games where there's been some incredible decisions about a guy diving for the line and the only contact point is the heel of the shoulders, and because you make contact with the shoulders that's a penalty try.

"Well, it's not a penalty try and it never, ever has been, but I think that will balance up, that has been discussed and there's always that period. . . it's very hard for the referees because they are trying to effectively execute ultimatums.

"There are so many grey areas, it's not black and white. So it's very tough for them, but in the end I think you find the happy medium to best protect the players, because we need to, and at the same time we keep the contest alive for the ball and the tackle variety that's necessary."

Across the Guinness Pro12 and Champions Cup campaigns to date we've seen red and yellow cards have an impact on big games, and with bonus points now on offer, a team's discipline is more important than ever.

The introduction of the scheme long used at World Cup, European and league level as well as across the Southern Hemisphere was warmly welcomed when it was announced but it remains on trial pending its success.

In particular, the risk of being caught by the conditions is high, while the teams who play a tiring Italy in better weather towards the end of the tournament have a better opportunity to score more tries.

The opening weekend will give a strong indication of whether approaches will change. Ireland ran in five tries in excellent conditions in Chicago as Rory Best went to the corner when the opportunities arose and the captain's decision will set the tone for the weeks to come.

Brave

It seems unlikely that all of the teams will be going for broke from the off, especially given that a Grand Slam ensures the trophy, but fortune may favour those who opt to be brave from minute one when the final count comes in.

At the end of it all, there is the extra individual carrot of Lions selection as Gatland sits in judgement throughout.

The captains were all shrugging off talk of the tour on Wednesday, but it will be in the players' minds as they take the field and enter battles with positional rivals across the eight weeks.

Pundits will pick their teams and much will be made of who is in and who is out, while Gatland will visit the training grounds to add another layer to the tournament narrative.

But really it is all about what happens on the Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from now until March 18.

England's visit to Dublin looks a potential decider, but a lot can happen to derail the dream scenario.

From an Irish point of view, the health of a few very important men is crucial. Again, a nation will wreck Johnny Sexton's head with talk about his health, while Conor Murray, Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong simply cannot go down.

There is much for Ireland to get excited by. A good start opens up the possibility of yet more history for Best's men.

They have what it takes.

Irish Independent

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