Six Nations: Dr. Deccie or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Choke Tackle

Here’s a question nobody really knows the answer to: how will Ireland do in the Six Nations this year?  The bookies have us as lowly fourth favourites, but the Observer has us down as winners, and Shaun Edwards (mindgames alert!) has said we’re overwhelming favourites.  But Frankie ‘My Client!’ Sheahan’s traditional Grand Slam prediction on Against the Head was a bit half-hearted and the public at large seem fairly underwhelmed by the whole thing. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of feeling that, even with the provinces demolishing all before them, Ireland can really capitalise and win the Championship.
The truth is that this Ireland team flatters to deceive, and has done since their annus mirabilis in 2009.  Just what is this team all about?  They made matchwood of Australia’s tight forwards in the World Cup, and played at a ferocious pace against England last Spring, but looked dull and ponderous for vast swathes of 2011, never more so than when they kicked the ball over 50 times in the Millenium Stadium in losing to a poor Wales side.

To be fair to the group, the Achilles heel appears to have been identified.  It seems that in their recent get-together at Carton House, the players identified their attack with ball in hand as the weakest part of their game.  Well, duh.  In spite of Gerry’s laughable attempts on Newstalk a few weeks back to convince us that Ireland’s attack was in fact very good, the players themselves felt they had become predictable and lacked the firepower to respond with tries when their defence, which is a big strength for the team, finally leaked in the World Cup quarter-final.

Les Kiss, Jamie Heaslip and Dorce have been among those making positive noises about a new(ish) style of play, more ball-in-hand and with more depth and decoy runners in attack.  They haven’t thrown away the playbook (such as it was), all were quick to point out, but they will be adding a bit more to their play.  The flat, lateral, moribund shovelling that has characterised much of Ireland’s atack over the last 24 months will not be missed. Ireland lack cohesion and a genuine identity in their style.  At times the players themselves look muddled – how many times have we seen Jamie Heaslip, arm out to offload the ball, but no-one on hand to take it? Dorce indicated that the players came away with a much clearer idea of what the gameplan will be than ever before.  Bring it on – this is the single most important area for the team to deliver.

That’s the gameplan ticked off Deccie’s list – now, to put the best team on the field to implement it.  A good chunk of the team picks itself at this stage, so let’s get that out of the way: Healy, Best and Ross in the front row, Paulie captain, Ferris, O’Brien and Heaslip in the back row.  The back three will be Trimble, Bowe and Kearney.  That leaves a partner for Paulie, the halves and the centres, which we went through yesterday (we’re set on McFadden and Earls).

At halfback, Kidney needs to put faith in Murray and Sexton.  We’d ask, as we have done with the 13 shirt, that these two be given the championship to develop a relationship.  Sexton has been in flying form with Leinster, his place kicking flawless and his all-round game sublime.  Murray has come in for some criticism for his far-too-numerous carries and hesitancy to pass this season.  But we have a suspicion it’s under instruction, with Munster using him as a primary ball carrier; it’s an area where they’re light in the absence of Wally (it’s not Ronan or O’Mahony’s strength) and Murray is a strong in contact.  Behind the carrier-heavy Irish backrow Murray could focus on smooth delivery (he has a sweet pass), with an occasional snipe, of course. It helps that, traditionally, Deccie eschews provincial partnerships at halfback – even at Wolfhound level where Boss and Keatley faffed about with completely expected unfamiliarity.
At 4, our great friend O’Callaghan has been fairly invisible this season with Donncha Ryan stepping into his shirt with Munster.  He’s playing great stuff and deserves a test start – we’ll be disappointed if Kidney sticks with Donncha ‘Unseen Work’ O’Callaghan.  Ryan just holds off the challenge of Ulster’s intriguing Dan Tuohy.  Tuohy’s lineout work is solid, and with good carrying ability and nice hands, he’s more of a footballer than any of the other options – he’s our man to bring off the bench.  With Court, Cronin, Tuohy, Reddan and ROG taking their places on the plinth, all that remains is a reserve outside back and a backrow.  Given our centres can cover the wide channels, Dorce gets into the 22 shirt (since Luke is injured), where his experience will come in handy.

In the backrow, we are a hung jury…
Palla makes the case for Peter O’Mahony: O’Mahony deserves his chance.  He offers more versatility than Jennings or Ruddock and has had a terrific season so far.  He’s a tigerish fellow, but also a fairly rounded footballer.
And Egg for Chris Henry: Henry has had his best season yet for Ulster – he covers the entire back row and is familiar with the international setup. Henry has spent most of the season covering the openside, which is where Ireland are likely to use a replacement – Fez will slink off after 65 minutes and SOB will switch across. To be truthful, we will be happy with either.

The team selection issues are secondary this season.  It’s an exciting, cutting-edge attack that we really want to see.  If the patched-up coaching team without a dedicated attack coach can deliver it, Ireland have everything else in place – set piece, defence, personnel, to have a good Six Nations.  Victory in Paris might prove a step too far, but four wins would put Ireland right in the shake-up.  Any less and we’ll be asking questions.

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