The Six Nations starts this weekend, and for Irish fans, the air is one of almost pervasive doom and gloom. Leinster, Ulster and Munster are all out of the Champions Cup and the wounds from the passive defeat to Argentina in the World Cup are still raw. Throw in injuries to a handful of Ireland’s best players and this being the first series without Paul O’Connell and it doesn’t get any better. Then there’s the front-loaded schedule which pits Ireland into their three toughest matches first. Wales, then France in Paris, and then England. Yeeshk.
It’s certainly a challenging series, and the first major business is getting a functioning team on the pitch. Ireland have a number of personnel issues, but foremost among them are the tight five and the form of their half-backs. With Cian Healy, Mike Ross, and Iain Henderson injuried and Paul O’Connell no more, it’s going to be a relatively new-look tight five. Rory Best, Jack McGrath and Devin Toner pick themselves at this rate, while the remaining two berths are likely to be filled by Nathan White (the two Leinster tightheads probably not quite ready to start) and Mike McCarthy, whose form at least is a major plus. Well, a plus. But can he be effective at this level? He’s been dining out on his performance against South Africa in 2012 for a while, whereas Ryan always looked the part in green – but then he’s playing like a drain. One way or another, we’ve gone from this area being one of relative strength to one of glaring weakness in six months.
No such selection issues at halfback, but rather concerns of form. Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton have been two of the key ingredients in Ireland’s Six Nations triumphs, but both have looked – not quite off the pace – just a shade off their usual peerless selves over the last couple of months. They are still the halves that any of the coaches would love to have in their arsenal, but the concern remains that should either misfire, Ireland’s coaches don’t really have enough confidence in the reserves to take them off in clutch situations. Or indeed, who the reserves are – is it still Reddan and Madigan? Or has Jackson’s much superior form vaulted him on to the bench?
In the back row, the major selection question is where Passion’s CJ Stander (Criosti Eoin Seasamh?) will fit in once he has Dion O Cuinneagan-ed the national anthem. Heaslip might get bombs thrown at him about “workrate” and “attitude” but he was one of Ireland’s best players in the World Cup, and has been pretty decent for Leinster. We just can’t see Schmidt going from having him as his captain to dropping him altogether. So do we play Stander out of position just to get him in the team? Maybe, but Schmidt hasn’t much of a record of that – more likely we see an all-Leinster OUTRAGEous back row of Ruddock-O’Brien-Heaslip with Stander or O’Donnell on the bench. But we’re fine with that – it’s a backrow to strike fear into the toned sinews of England’s David Pocock – James Haskell (of which more below).
When it comes to outside backs, the number Jared Payne wears on his shirt will drive whether or not Choo Choo Stu gets the nod to start. Payne wore 15 in Ulster’s last 2 ERC games and looked excellent – for the first one we weren’t sure if it was Kissy being reluctant to throw his returning star into the heavy traffic of the Saracens midfield, but once he lined out there in the secnod it seemed a ply. For the first time since Deccie took over, Bob is under pressure for his shirt – Payne is a fullback primed for use as a counter attacking weapon, and his selection would signify a probable shift in the gameplan. Kearney is by no means shot – he’s actually younger than Payne – but he isn’t doing much at Leinster whereas Payne is like a limousine in open field.
And if Payne is picked at fullback, it means there is a centre slot up for grabs – and what better solution than to move Henshaw to his natural position outside and employ McCloskey in his natural position inside. Seems too obvious doesn’t it?
Looking further afield, the mood in Ireland is in stark contrast to the newfound ebullience in the England camp where everything is sweetness and light, while Wazza’a Wales must rightly feel that with their turbo-charged midfield back roaring that they will rediscover the cutting edge that was the difference between winning and losing narrowly to Australia and South Africa in the World Cup.
Still, might be better to leave them at it. For the Welsh, it was ever thus, and Ireland may just find themselves blessed to have them first up, and in Dublin. Wales have a well earned reputation for sleepwalking through the first game of a series, and to have them at home in round one is almost certainly the best possible way to face up to them.
As for England, well, they’ll be fascinating to watch under Eddie Jones, but don’t bet the farm on them necessarily being all that good. Forget any sort of stylistic overhaul, or a return to the short-passing game they almost, nearly, thought about bringing to the World Cup before changing their minds. Jones has instead staked his chips on making his England nastier and less jolly-hockeysticks-gentlemanly than Lancaster’s team. But it’s still largely the same team that performed so dismally in the World Cup, and the maligned master-of-none Chris Robshaw is still a starter. And the much vaunted ‘proper No.7′? That’ll be the Gun Show, a man born to wear the number 6.5 jersey if ever there was one. Jones’ first major decision is a high-stakes gamble on Dylan Hartley proving himself able to keep ice in the mind in the heat of battle as team captain. It has every chance of not coming off. Jonno’s England were similarly spiky in nature, but more often than not it teetered over the brink into daft indiscipline and mostly amounted to rashes of silly penalties and sin-bin episodes. Mind you, at least Jones is a proper coach. England will be competitive as usual, but perhaps miracles can wait.
France, meanwhile, are unlikely to have applied a magical fix to their deeply entrenched structural problems and abject lack of fitness, despite Gerry’s assertions that they are waiting in the long grass for us. Let’s hope it isn’t too long or Yoann Maestri will be even lazier than usual. Guy Noves’ Toulouse were useless in the last few years, and he appears an unlikely moderniser – bottom half beckons. And as for Scotland, well, hope springs eternal that they may one year get their act together, but they find a way of extinguishing the feelgood factor every spring. Should they lose to England in the opening week, expect heads to drop, and watch them limp through the rest of the tournament.
So what of it all then? Well, the thing we need to remember about the Six Nations is that there aren’t any Southern Hemisphere teams in it – so Ireland are unlikely to be filleted the way Argentina did early and late on in Cardiff. And indeed four of the six limped out of the World Cup, and a fifth had the scheduling of Japan’s fixtures contribute mightily to their progress. The only one that came home with their heads held high were Wales, who were mighty value for their quarter final place. The Welsh have home fixtures against the recent bottom-dwellers of France, Italy and Scotland, and could well rack up enough points to ensure a fourth victory will suffice for the Championship – they are our pick. Ireland will do better than the naysayers imagine – four wins is eminently achievable and disgrace unlikely. The flip side of tougher games first means you can come out targeting a score fest against Italy and Scotland for glory – we’d take that, but we reckon we might be behind grinning Gatty come March.
Oh, and the final piece of good news is that a handful of will-they-won’t-they contracts have been tied up in the last few weeks, and hopefully will take a weight off the minds of the likes of Earls, Murray and Zebo. After an abject winter with the provinces, the Six Nations may be just the tonic needed to rejuvenate the players.