Monday 19 March 2018

The World can wait as Ireland protect realm

A successful Six Nations title defence would be the perfect platform for autumn assault, writes Ruaidhri O’Connor

Fergus McFadden celebrates with Brian O’Driscoll at the Stade de France last year, neither of whom will be in Rome for the start of this year’s campaign
Fergus McFadden celebrates with Brian O’Driscoll at the Stade de France last year, neither of whom will be in Rome for the start of this year’s campaign
Joe Schmidt and Jonny Sexton celebrate the title victory in Paris

Ruaidhri O’Connor

MUCH like going wide with the ball, you have to earn the right to succeed at the Rugby World Cup. Six Nations success won't bring with it any guarantees, but it would lay down a marker about just how serious a proposition Joe Schmidt's Ireland are in 2015.

Next autumn's showpiece event looms large on the horizon, but it would be wrong to get drawn towards the bright lights.

The Championship might be a yearly routine, yet it offers the best recipe for success in the World Cup. With Ireland facing pool rivals Italy and France over the course of the next fortnight, there is even more significance.

For just the third time in 30 years, Ireland go into the Six Nations as defending champions and they haven't gone back-to-back as outright winners since the days of the late Jack Kyle.

They enter the most open Championship in recent memory as favourites, with five of the six teams pointing to year-on-year improvements even if Scotland still look to have too shallow a pool to truly trouble the established top four. Landmines lurk around every corner, starting in Rome this Saturday but under Schmidt Ireland have learnt to win and have been able to adapt to every bit of adversity that has come their way.


While they may talk down their own chances in their public utterances, there is a belief coursing through the national team that saw them through November unbeaten despite not playing particularly brilliantly.

The squad assembled by Schmidt is by far the strongest he's had to pick from, even if some of his best players are just coming back to fitness and may not feature until the latter stages.

That means the opening games take on even more importance. If Ireland can come through Italy and France unbeaten, the world of possibilities opens up as the squad gets stronger.

This being the year when Les Bleus and England come to Dublin, there is an added impetus on Ireland to go and perform. With a manageable trip to Rome followed by two home games, they can put themselves in a strong position for their tour of their Celtic neighbours.

It may not be as straightforward as that sounds because each and every country is heading into this year's tournament working out similarly optimistic scenarios.

For Wales and England, Friday night's mouth-watering opener in Cardiff sets the tone. As momentum-generators go, it's a rocket-launcher.

"I think it's going to set a heck if a benchmark for a tournament that has a very high benchmark to start with," Schmidt said. "We're all going to have to come up to the level they set on the Friday night."

At that stage, the New Zelander will have revealed his hand. Rarely during his 18 months selecting Irish teams has Schmidt had so many options to choose from.

Far from condemning the nation to a barren era, the retirement of Brian O'Driscoll has been followed by a show of strength from Ireland's No13s. From having one man own the jersey for more than a decade, there's now options a-plenty.

The youngest man in the squad, Robbie Henshaw, has grown in stature to such an extent that his place is assured. It's just a case of who lines up alongside him and in which channel.

Jared Payne would appear to be the favourite to reprise his role from the win over South Africa, with Gordon D'Arcy doing himself few favours on Friday night in Cork.

O'Driscoll's decision to step away has cast a shadow over the other senior citizens in the squad.

If time appears to have caught up on D'Arcy, it is nipping at Mike Ross's heals and the man who succeeded John Hayes as the cornerstone of the Irish scrum's place is in real danger. Leinster have favoured young guns Marty Moore and Tadhg Furlong for their big European games, but Ross is clinging on to his green No 3 shirt.

The other elder statesman is the captain but Paul O'Connell remains central to Schmidt's plans despite his advancing years. The talismanic second-row may not be the most dynamic ball-carrier these days, but his contribution to Ireland's forward effort and defence remains crucial.

Despite using 56 different players in his 13 games as coach, the Kiwi coach has largely stayed faithful to the same starting XV in his time in charge - those that took his home country to the brink in November 2013 and of that team, only O'Driscoll is not in camp this week, although Dave Kearney and Cian Healy are recovering from injuries. It leaves Schmidt in a position where the coaches of Europe's big two are looking enviously at his resources as they count an injury toll that seems to increase by the day.

England have been installed as joint-favourites with Ireland by some bookmakers, but they remain a highly functional, yet deeply uninspiring team. The success of the Premiership's clubs in Europe and their performances against Irish provinces should act as a warning to any Ireland fans getting ahead of themselves, as should the fact that England have tipped the balance of the relationship back in their favour, winning four in a row including two at Lansdowne Road.

Stuart Lancaster made headlines when turning to old hands Nick Easter and Danny Cipriani, but young guns George Ford and the Vunipola brothers are key to his hopes.

The England coach has improved his side's image, but his team's fortunes are largely the same as they were when Easter was last involved under Martin Johnson. Still, they are long overdue a Championship win and have the squad to do it.

France looked resurgent, as they often do in the autumn, but then let it slip against Argentina as their new kid on the block Teddy Thomas fell foul of Phillipe Saint-Andre's disciplinary streak.

Their united nations approach may grate given their resources, but the recruitment of South Africans Scott Spedding and Rory Kockott in particular strengthen their hand, while the recent tragic events in Paris are set to bring the country together on the opening evening when Scotland visit the Stade de France.

Captain Thierry Dusatoir spoke about it at the Six Nations launch and Schmidt is aware that it could have an effect.


"They have a very nationalistic sense about them. Adversity does galvanise a group, sometimes and I think that is something which happens with us in Paris last year, Nicolas Mas walked out of the press conference because he felt that they were being unjustly criticised and he felt there was a bit of adversity," he said.

"I think nations do galvanise themselves when there is an adversity when there is something, a natural disaster or a man made disaster either way it can help build a national pride and consolidate a sense of being part of a country."

What tangible role that will have on proceedings will be clear come Saturday, but the prospect of a rejuvenated Les Bleus rolling into Dublin on St Valentine's Day is a concerning one for the coach.

Over in Wales, Warren Gatland must be in disbelief at having a fully-fit squad to choose from. The perennial momentum junkies are hoping to get their fix at a packed Millennium Stadium on Friday and, when their juggernaut gets going, it's hard to stop.

As for the Scots, further evidence is required before their revolution under Vern Cotter can be declared a success but the noises coming from Edinburgh are positive, while the Italians are set for another difficult spring as they continue to play catch-up.

Still, they won't be lacking in incentive come Saturday in Rome when Ireland open their campaign and, with Jonny Sexton sidelined and a number of Schmidt's key men playing their way back into fitness, it represents a dangerous starting point.

Managing their way through the first fortnight is the key for the defending champions. The year's main event may be yet to come, but retaining their crown would be a real statement of intent going into the World Cup.

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