It’s ALIVE!

Lethargy for the grand old tournament has been growing in recent years, with the Heineken Cup more colourful, varied, approachable and enjoyable in an increasing number of fans’ eyes.  But this opening weekend blew the cobwebs away.  We had been told by all comers that the refereeing ws going to be positive, punishing those whose influence at the breakdown was negative.  They seemed to get their message across, because the three games were all fantastic, with all teams looking to attack.  It’s early days, but it’s shaping up to be the best Six Nations since 2007, or perhaps even better yet.

Ireland are up and running

It was a hugely commendable performance from Ireland.  Last year, the team sat off Wales and let them dictate the game.  Not this.  Ireland imposed their game plan on Wales.  Given the bizarrely fluctuating performance level of this team over the last three seasons, backing up the Agentina win with another good performance was absolutely critical.  They have now done that.  It creates a sense of building momentum, underlined by the manner win which Murray and Sexton appear to have developed an understanding of how each other plays.  It has taken them some time, but they are such good players, that it has been worth waiting for.  Now they just have to do it again, against England.

Kidney Casts off the Shackles

We were wrong and Kate McEvoy was right.  Deccie nailed his team selection and tactics this week.  O’Mahony utterly vindicated his selection over 50 minutes of barnstorming rugger.  Gilroy’s kicking was loose at times, but he put in some huge hits in defence.  A year ago, you feel Kidney would have played the ‘we know what he can do’ card and picked Earls on the wing, but he took the risk, and was rewarded.  We still have a preference for Luke Fitzgerald in the back-three, but Gilroy ultimately delivered for his coach.  Kidney has been wilfully conservative at times over the last few seasons, but with his contract renewal hinging on the outcome of this series, he has nothing to lose and appears willing to gamble a bit more.

If Rob Howley had got his own selection right, and picked the in-form Jason Tipuric from the start, perhaps things might have been different.  But he didn’t, and it wasn’t.

Ireland have no bench

It took Deccie years to get the hang of the whole ‘bench’ thing, but in the last 24 months he got the knack for it.  Just don’t expect him to use it much this year; because we don’t really have one.  Ireland did have a good bench over the last couple of season, but that was when Reddan was making a strong case for selection and ROG could still influence a test match; neither is the case this year.  Backrow is the only place where Ireland can bring on somebody to change the dynamic of the game, with Henry bringing something different to either of the starting flankers.  O’Callaghan can replace tiring legs late in games, but he’s not going to really alter the balance of a match.  Let’s not even talk about the front row.

The single biggest threat to Ireland’s hopes of winning the championship is fatigue to the likes of Murray, Sexton, Best, Ryan ,Healy and of course Ross, who will all be required to put in 70-80 minute shifts in all five games.  England, by contrast, have a bench stacked with impact men – Danny Care, Courtney Lawes, James Haskell (whatever you make of them).  Dare Kidney revisit his famous squad rotation in Murrayfield or Rome, and rest one or two of his key men should Ireland be closing in on a possible grand slam?  Let’s cross that bridge when if we come to it.

Kidney does have some options to give more oomph to his bench.  Earls hasn’t impressed recently in green (although we wouldn’t write off his hopes of being a test centre just yet), and Fitzgerald is worth considering for the 23 shirt.  Paul Marshall performs the role of impact sub with gusto at Ulster, and is in far better form than Reddan.  There are other options at 10, with Madigan the most enticing, but none have any test rugby experience, and it’s a safe bet that Sexton will accumulate 400 championship minutes this season, injury permitting.

Simon Zebo – the new Ugo Monye?

Yep, that’s  what we thought a year ago.  Joke’s on us!  Last year Zebo looked exciting, scored lots of tries, but was pretty raw.  We questioned whether he had enough football skills to be the real deal, or was he just a straight-line runner in the Ugo Monye mould.  The extent to which he has improved his game over the last year is remarkable, and that flick will feature on highlights reels for years to come.  Thankfully it got the reward it deserved with Church bashing over the line from close quarters. Zebo could/should/will (delete as appropriate) be the poster boy for Irish rugby for years to come, provided those dastardly Frenchies don’t steal him, as they tried to this year.

Forza Italia

What a win!  What a match!  Italy were simply wonderful.  They offloaded, they ran and they had Parisse.  Their fly-half, Lucky Luciano Orquera, played at a level he has probably never attained in his life, and everything came off.  Their ambition was laudable; they played to win the game and not just to keep the score down, as they have so often in the past.  In the 74th minute, protecting a narrow lead, they won a turnover and guess what? –they counter-attacked again.  They have a chance now to win two or even three matches, but must try and bring the same energy on the road as they do in Rome, which they’ve never really done before, in order to beat Scotland.

The game was brilliantly presided over by Nigel Owens, who communicated clearly and fairly, and with no shortage of his usual wit (‘I could have penalised any of eight of you’, he said at one point).  He looked utterly unflustered throughout, a man clearly enjoying himself in a high-pressure environment.

Six Nations Preview

This post is from our regular column in the Irish Post, the highest-selling newspaper for the Irish in Britain (which these days includes businessmen, lawyers and doctors, as well as dead-eyed brickies in Cricklewood). The paper is published on Wednesday’s in Britain, and our columns will be re-produced on the blog on Fridays.

It’s that time of year again: Hooray Henrys braying in the finest hostelries of Dublin 4, sour-faced Welsh fans complaining their team didn’t win by enough, and Cedric Heymans and Clement Poitrenaud in the smoking area of Coppers late on a Saturday night. It’s the Six Nations.

And it’s a fresh-feeling version of the old tournament as well – it seems pretty open, and all countries are well on the World Cup 2015 trail (well, all except the usual suspects, Ireland and Scotland) with their cycles into the second year. France and England in particular look much improved from last year, when the Welsh rode their World Cup 2011 semi-final all the way to a third Grand Slam in seven years. Yet it was low-quality fare in general – only the Taffs will have been content with their form.

Now, let’s look forward to the next five weekends of John Inverdale-filled fun. We’ll start with the French. Phillipe Saint-Andre has now begun to put his stamp on the team, having stated that it was time they “switched generations” – the Servats, Bonnaires and Yachvilis are out and the likes of Louis Picamoles, Yannick Nyanga and Maxime Machenaud are in. The most visible change is, of course, the rebirth of Freddy Michalak.

It’s seven years since the flawed genius last electrified this tournament and, it’s safe to say, he owes it – what a feeling of unfinished business he must have.  England grabbed the November headlines with their stunning victory over New Zealand, but France were the best in Europe – they hammered an Aussie team that wiped a purple-clad England, and ground down a fine Samoa team. They’ll probably lose in Twickenham (plus ca change) but win the tournament, with Wesley Fofana the star of the competition.

Speaking of Twickers, the red-blooded, upstanding chaps in the white jerseys have a nice look about them. Stuart Lancaster is now full-time in the job and their squad is sprinkled with exciting youngsters that might just light up their home World Cup in two-and-a-half years – Joe Launchbury, the Vunipolas (Mako and Billy), Freddy Burns and Manu Tuilagi for example. They still struggle for consistency, which is to be expected, but won’t see too much to fear. A win in Dublin looks an ask, but four wins would constitute a good tournament. And the performances will surely be better than the abominations against Scotland and Italy they produced last time. England are serious contenders and look like they will be right through to 2015.

Unlike Ireland.

The IRFU’s amateur-era blazers are saddled with a coach who is one loss in Wales away from being the lamest of lame ducks. Finishing a largely-disastrous 2012 on a high, Declan Kidney is into the final few months of his contract and Ireland are six months away from starting our World Cup cycle – is it any wonder we flatter to deceive when we get there?

This is make-or-break time for Kidney; he badly wants a new contract, but it is time to show if he can lead this team in the right direction. Post-2009, Ireland can’t seem to break a pattern of one-off performances and maddening inconsistency.

The feelgood factor is at least reasonably high after an autumn in which a team shorn of its older generation of leaders tore Argentina apart. But can Ireland overcome the twin distractions of Brian O’Driscoll being stripped of the captaincy and Jonny Sexton leaving for Racing Metro?

Memories of Ireland’s lacklustre starts in recent series and three desperate losses in a row against the Welsh mean we can’t be confident about getting a win in the Millennium, and until Ireland beat France, we remain unconvinced the team has the mental strength to do so. We’re forecasting three wins and another curate’s egg of a tournament. It won’t be enough to save Kindney, so it’ll be back to the coaching drawing board 18 months after everyone else.

Speaking of the Welsh, it’s hard to know what to make of them. After looking chock-full of Lions this time last year, it’s hard to pick their starters this time out. Rhys Priestland is injured and inspirational captain Sam Warburton should be benched on form.

Worst of all, they’re missing their five (five!) best second rows and ironclad blindside Dan Lydiate. And yet – even missing all of the above and Lions coach Warren Gatland, they could get their act together. They have a solid front row and giant, skilful backs, but Rob Howley doesn’t fill us with confidence – three wins, and discontent in the Valleys.

As for Italy and Scotland, we cannot get too excited. Jacques Brunel has the Azzurri playing some silky stuff while making progress. But until they find some half-backs of passable quality, all their grunt is in vain.  Scotland replaced Andy Robinson with the serially unimpressive Scott Johnson after Tonga felt their sporrans in November and, despite the wooden spoon playoff being in Murrayfield this year, we think (and hope, for Sergio Parrisse’s sake) the Italians will do it.

Of course, this is a Lions year, which adds an extra dimension. Four years ago, Ireland had an unprecedented number of tourists as St Ian McGeechan tried to bring the Munster spirit, and half their team, to the tour. This time last year, the Lions-in-waiting team was festooned with Welsh, but they have the most to lose –the likes of Warburton, Mike Phillips and even George North could easily play themselves out of test contention.

It’s the English who look to have most to gain – any of the aforementioned nippy youngsters, plus Danny Care and Chris Robshaw could all be on the plane by Easter if they bring their recent club form to the white shirt. Robshaw is even a potential captain, even if he may not quite have the pace for the hard Australian ground. The hope, of course, is that the likes of Sean O’Brien, Rory Best, Donnacha Ryan and O’Driscoll hit enough form to join already-on-the-plane Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip, Sexton and Rob Kearney.

So then, France to win it all, but no Grand Slam and no Triple Crown, with Scotland at the bottom – you heard it here first!