Ireland must forget off-field issues to win open Six Nations
By Ian Cusack
Victory over the All Blacks in autumn ensured the English media would go overboard on their team’s chances of a Grand Slam in the 2013 Six Nations. As the rest of the rugby community weighs up the strength of France under Philippe Saint-Andre and the chances of Wales defending their crown, little has been made of Ireland’s championship prospects.
Even at home, attention has deviated from the competition itself with the news that Jonathan Sexton is going to buck the trend and become the first high-profile Irish player to actually make the move to Top 14 rugby, rather than simply using negations with French clubs as a bargaining tool for a better contract with the IRFU.
Meanwhile, the shock of Brian O’Driscoll’s loss of captaincy has been compounded by the centre’s comments that this may be his last Six Nations.
The big question is whether these off-field issues have affected Irish preparations. Suddenly there’s a new voice leading the team talk and the flyhalf who inspired Leinster at half-time in the 2010/11 Heineken Cup final is migrating from the province.
Let’s not forget that Munster’s place in the latter stages of the Heineken Cup came at Leinster’s expense, so is the dressing room as unified as it needs to be?
It’s no secret that Irish hopes of Six Nations success are greater when England and France have to make the trip to Dublin, which labels Wales at the Millennium Stadium as the toughest away fixture.
A strong case can be made for both sides ahead of tomorrow’s fixture which pits the form book against the recent head-to-head record.
Warren Gatland’s troops have come out on top in the last three meetings between the two nations, most memorably in the 2011 Rugby World Cup quarter-final, but Wales currently find themselves on a seven-game losing streak which includes home defeats to Argentina and Samoa over the autumn.
It shouldn’t be forgotten however, that Ireland needed a non-test international against Fiji to rescue some form after five defeats on the bounce.
That was followed by an impressive seven-try mauling of the Pumas at the Aviva Stadium which left things on an optimistic note back in November.
However, too often these big Irish performances have come in isolation. The memorable triumph over Australia at Eden Park was followed by a tame showing against the Welsh in the quarter-final.
The 20-point winning margin over Argentina in 2010’s autumn series came on the back of defeats to South Africa and the All Blacks.
With his current contract expiring at the end of spring, Declan Kidney needs his charges to produce a consistent campaign which marries performances with results if he is to remain at the helm for the 2015 World Cup.
The boldness in Kidney’s team selection comes out wide where he has put his faith in 21-year old Craig Gilroy and 22-year-old Simon Zebo.
Rob Kearney’s return to fitness ensured he retained rightful ownership of the fullback shirt leaving Zebo among the pack fighting for a place on the wings along with Gilroy, Andrew Trimble, Fergus McFadden, Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls.
Scintillating form for Munster, including his second Heineken Cup hat-trick in two seasons, put Zebo in pole position for one of the flanks but Gilroy’s inclusion will have surprised some.
While the Ulsterman is probably the most exciting runner of Kidney’s wing options, he also represents the biggest risk.
After a stagnant attacking performance against the Springboks it was Zebo, and in particular Gilroy on international debut, who got the Irish fans off their seats with some incisive running against Argentina and Kidney is obviously looking for more of the same.
But one area where both wingers have yet to really prove themselves is in defence, making the big one-on-one tackles, and with the mountainous frames of George North and Alex Cuthburt charging at them this weekend, those defensive skills are in for a stern test.
Both Welsh flyers will enjoy a height advantage as well as a whopping 15 kg weight surplus over their opposing wingers. Aware that neither Zebo nor Gilroy are seasoned Six Nations campaigners Wales will no doubt be looking to test both in the physical stakes as well as with cross-field kicks.
The other big decision for Kidney was in the back row where he has opted for aggression and lineout versatility in the shape of Peter O’Mahony over the foraging prowess of Chris Henry.
If Ireland’s inexperienced wingers represent a possible fault line in defence, Gatland’s selection of Dan Biggar for his first Six Nations game at flyhalf will have the likes of Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip licking their lips.
With 120 Ospreys caps to his name it’s surprising the 23-year-old hasn't made more appearances in the red jersey, but he has shown a tendency to go off the boil if things don’t go his way early on in games.
Another important change from the Welsh side which lost to Samoa over autumn comes in the front row where the familiar trio of Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees and Adam Jones return with one thing in mind, dismantling an Irish scrum that has become an obvious weakness for opposition teams to target in recent seasons.
Meanwhile amid a mini-crisis in the second row, interim head coach Rob Howley has opted to hand lock Andrew Coombs his debut and is hoping he and blindside flanker Aaron Shingler can upset the Irish lineout which struggled without Best over the November series.
So much is riding on the set-piece, particularly the scrum. If Wales can upset the Irish unit as England did in Twickenham, Leigh Halfpenney has a howitzer boot which can take full advantage from penalties coughed up anywhere around the centre of the pitch.
Despite their team sheet boasting a host of probable Lions starters, it’s hard to see where Wales can wrestle form from with their regional sides also struggling as more and more players flock overseas.
Ireland to win 22-17.