Tuesday 19 March 2019

Sinéad Kissane: 'A nation expects'

 

Best of the best: Johnny Sexton and Joe Schmidt will both look to maintain their stunning recent record. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Best of the best: Johnny Sexton and Joe Schmidt will both look to maintain their stunning recent record. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Sinéad Kissane

The Six Nations can do strange things to adults. Take the official launch of the championship in London last week, which was attended by all the head coaches and captains. One of the lines devoured was a passing comment between Eddie Jones and Joe Schmidt.

"Eddie went past me just before and he said, 'Right, let's get ready for a few grenades'," Schmidt said.

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The media had a feast with this quote. The fact that there were no actual verbal 'grenades' by Jones at this launch, beyond talk about binoculars and Bat-phones, was beside the point, because the anticipation there was enough to have some folks break out in hot flushes.

Anticipation, hype and hope are all part of the Six Nations' charm. The countdown to this championship for Irish rugby has been like no other because it's been dominated by one thing: winning.

There's been a hell of a lot of winning going on. January delivered back-to-back weekends of clean sweeps for the provinces in Europe which saw all four into the quarter-finals for the first time.

Achieved

We've never had it so good. Add that to four wins out of four in November, including that first win over New Zealand on Irish soil on top of everything achieved last season, and you're left wondering (a) 'is this too good to be true?' And (b) 'how long is this going to last?'

Remember the last time Ireland went into a Six Nations after beating the All Blacks the previous November and the hype that generated?

That's right, the Scottish bus driver took the Irish lads on an unscheduled tourist trip around Edinburgh.

When the Ireland team bus eventually came to the Murrayfield hop-off, the fact they were 15 minutes late was used as the perfect excuse to explain the players being off-form and losing their first game of the 2017 Championship.

As Schmidt alluded to last week, when he spoke about his love-hate relationship with the Six Nations, it can be a miserable place when the game you are forced to play is one of catch-up for the rest of spring.

If you want an antidote to all this hype about Ireland then maybe run your finger through Ireland's opening games in the Six Nations since Schmidt took over.

Ireland have never lost a game in the final round of the championship under his watch but haven't been convincing at times at the starting gun.

In 2014 and 2015 Ireland opened with easy wins over Scotland at home and Italy away respectively. Then came the 16-16 draw with Wales in 2016, then that loss to Scotland in 2017 followed by the 41 phase-a-thon for Johnny Sexton's drop-goal to rescue a win in Paris in round one last year.

Whatever about the hype that wrapped itself around Ireland going into the Six Nations two years ago, it is nothing compared to what it is now.

That's what being defending Grand Slam champions does. And being ranked No 2 in the world. And having the World Rugby Player of the Year and Coach of the Year in your set-up.

The bubble they constantly claim they're in only extends so far. Because this isn't hype or hope anymore. This is expectation.

The best thing about this Six Nations is that other countries expect, too. As Conor O'Shea put it, this Six Nations is "different gravy" to other editions.

It is so front-loaded that it is even hard to look beyond Round 1. Wales in Paris on opening night followed by England in Dublin is the kind of grandstand first weekend which deserves a few more weeks of build-up so we can wring every last drop of anticipation out of the games.

It is a bit crazy to think that the start of the championship could just as quickly spell the end for one of the contenders.

And maybe it is said every year (it is) but this really could be the best Six Nations ever.

Why? Because the World Rugby rankings tell us so. For the first time going into a Six Nations, Ireland are No 2, Wales are No 3, England are No 4, Scotland 7th, France 9th and Italy 15th.

The rugby chin-strokers like to snobbishly pronounce that this isn't the year for a Grand Slam as if discussing anything otherwise shows a complete lack of appreciation for the nuances of how the home-and-away format changes every year.

This is rubbish - didn't Ireland win it in the tougher year with France and England away last year? What do I think about this year? Hmm, well I think this is probably not the year for a Grand Slam.

So, what can we expect? Well spare a thought for England defence coach John Mitchell and his assertion that Ireland will try to "bore the s**t out of us" in their opener at the Aviva Stadium.

Just when everyone was looking to Mr Jones to pull a fast one, his assistant comes up with the goods.

There will be some things we just don't see coming in this Six Nations and starting with this match-up between Ireland and England.

Boring is unlikely to be one of them.

Irish Independent

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