O'Sullivan looks for flying start

Eddie O’Sullivan is confident Ireland will launch an RBS 6 Nations title challenge if they make a successful start to the championship.

The Irish face Italy, Wales and Scotland at Lansdowne Road but their schedule also consists of trips to Paris and Twickenham, so the Grand Slam appears beyond them.

However O’Sullivan, who names his side for Saturday’s opener against Italy at lunchtime tomorrow, believes that by picking up early momentum Ireland could become serious title contenders.

“For us to win the Grand Slam we would have to beat England and France away. That’s the way the cookie crumbles,” he said.

“We have a good record at Lansdowne Road but to win in Paris and at Twickenham is a big ask.

“We’ve had Italy first up almost every year. It’s a very difficult game because traditionally they’ve enjoyed their greatest success in the opener.

“The Six Nations is about momentum and you build that by winning games, knocking each team off as they come along.

“If you’re three games in and you’ve won three games then you start thinking about bigger things. If we get past Italy we’ll see what happens when we get to Paris.”

Ireland experimented with a new style for the November internationals without much success as New Zealand and Australia registered routine victories.

Their kicking game took a back seat, especially against the All Blacks, with the emphasis on attacking through the backs and O’Sullivan accepts the correct balance has yet to be struck.

But the Ireland coach has ruled out using the Six Nations as a testing ground for new ideas with the World Cup in September next year.

“The autumn was a transitional period for us. What we need to do is get the balance right – give players their head and play the style we need to win games in the Six Nations,” he said.

“You always have one eye on the World Cup but when you come into the Six Nations you focus on that. This is a benchmark for the year.

“It’s the biggest competition of the season and it’s our bread and butter. You don’t muck around with it.”

There are some tight calls to be made when O’Sullivan selects his starting line-up for Italy having already named the 22-man squad last Wednesday.

Lions hooker Shane Byrne has been dropped following his dip in form, leaving Ulster’s Rory Best and Jerry Flannery of Munster to battle it out for the hooking duties.

Best was Byrne’s number two against New Zealand and Australia last November but recent form could see Flannery, who won his only cap against Romania in the autumn, elevated to first choice.

Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan and veteran Malcolm O’Kelly are competing for the two second row places with the Munster pair getting the nod if O’Sullivan believes age is a factor.

David Wallace, who was overlooked for the entire autumn series, has been hugely impressive for Munster and could oust Wasps’ Johnny O’Connor at openside, although his ability to cover all three positions in the back row makes him ideal for bench duty.

The backs will take care of themselves with the only area of uncertainty on the wings with Shane Horgan, Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble in contention for the two available spots.

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