For the players, this Six Nations tournament suddenly got very real

Wed, Jan 30, 2013, 00:00

From The Blindside:In the Ireland camp, today will be different to yesterday. The day after the team for the opening Six Nations game is announced, you always feel the atmosphere changing a little bit. The excitement level goes up a notch and the nerves go up with it.

The nature of the Six Nations places such a huge emphasis on the opening weekend and the pressure on players and coaches over the next three days won’t get any lighter. Everybody knows that this whole tournament could be as good as over and done with by mid-afternoon on Saturday.

Sentiment goes out the window now. You may have been part of the squad for a long time and you may have lost your place.

But there’s a job to do and people have to row in behind the rest of the squad now. The lads outside the match-day 23 will stay in camp for the next couple of days until the team flies out to Cardiff and hard as it will be for them, they can’t mope about.

Team do badly

That’s tough, let me tell you. I did it plenty of times and there’s no tougher week for it than this week. Because you know in your heart and soul that the team picked for the first game is going to have to either do pretty badly or suffer some injuries for you to see action for the next six weeks. And no matter how down you feel at not getting picked, you still want Ireland to win.

So you gradually become resigned to your fate – but not before you go out and hold some tackle pads just to make you feel that little bit worse. I spent the whole of the Grand Slam year on tackle pad duty.

Myself, Shane Horgan, Girvan Dempsey, Keith Earls, Shane Jennings – we were the main men in that campaign when it came to holding the tackle pads. Hey, I’m a medal-winner thanks to my efforts!

The most important thing is that you don’t bitch, you don’t moan, you don’t make people feel uncomfortable around you. You take it on the chin and you get over yourself. The guys who made it have a game to prepare for and they don’t need you being any sort of negative presence. The dynamics of the week have changed, everybody knows that.

But the ultimate aim of the week has stayed the same. The coaches are under pressure throughout. They know it’s going to be very hard to come back from a defeat against Wales if that’s what Saturday brings. Plenty of people all over the country are talking about the possibility that this could be their last Six Nations if it doesn’t go well. So a game that is already highly pressurised has that hanging over it as well.

When you think about it, it’s actually pretty harsh on international coaches that they get judged on a competition like the Six Nations.

With the way the rugby calendar is, preparation for it is always that little bit rushed, unlike with Heineken Cups and even World Cups where there’s a bit of a lead-in and you can get set properly in good time.

Yet it’s the one competition where you nearly always live and die by the opening weekend. That’s why it’s no surprise to hear the likes of Phillipe Saint-Andre complain over the past week about the troubles he has had preparing his France squad in such a short time.

Ireland have had that problem plenty of times and, in fairness to Declan Kidney and his staff, that was the biggest advantage of that famous get-together in Enfield before the 2009 Grand Slam.

A lot has been said and written about that couple of days but the really important work that was done there was in laying out exactly how we were going to hit the ground running come the following February. You obviously can’t prepare for every eventuality ahead of time but you can lay a lot of groundwork.

For players, the day after the team announcement is when the whole thing seems very real all of a sudden.

Growing up

With so much rugby played all-year-round these days, people forget that the rugby you watched when you were growing up dreaming of playing for Ireland was the Six Nations (or Five Nations for some of us). I remember being at the Ireland-England game in Lansdowne Road in 1995 as a teenager and watching Anthony Foley score a try on his debut. I was so envious and so eager to see would I get out there some day. When it does eventually happen, you don’t forget that.

So for the likes of Craig Gilroy and Simon Zebo this is a really special week. Mike McCarthy will be making his first Six Nations start as well and even though he has played in the tournament before coming off the bench, starting does feel different. The players are three days away from the game now and no matter how many times they’ve been in this position, it still feels exciting.

I always loved that feeling of being involved, of being part of something important. You were there for a purpose.

You are excited but it should be a nervous excitement. Because this is a tough competition to play in. It’s one where you can get found out in quite quickly. Some of the younger guys will have to realise that over the coming days – there’s no worse place to get cocky than the Six Nations because it can lull you into a kind of false sense of security. You’re not facing any players you haven’t met before with your province so you can easily lapse into thinking that you know what to expect.

If you go out with that attitude, you’re in for a shock. It might takes a little while but you will soon properly realise that the guy who might have three-quarter-tackled you when he was playing with his club has transformed now that he has his country’s jersey on. Not only is he playing with far more intensity, he’s assuming that you will be too. If you don’t meet it, you’ll get flattened.

This is where pride comes in. People can dismiss it all they like but it’s a definite factor. You watch those Welsh players on Saturday who are playing in front of their home-crowd on the back of an eight-match losing streak.

They’re a fragmented bunch who have players away playing in France and all over the place and they’re having to play this Six Nations without Warren Gatland. Pride has to be the one unifying force for them this weekend.

Pride in themselves, pride in their jersey, pride in their national sport. If any of the Ireland players think they’re going out to play against the lads they meet in the Heineken Cup or the Rabo, I’d say they’ll find out fairly quickly that they’re wrong. The faces might be the same but the players are different.

Grew in stature

This was a big thing for Clive Woodward when he was over England. He wanted to create this mentality that when you put on an international jersey, it changed you somehow for the time you were wearing it.

You grew in stature, you grew in confidence, you grew in belief. And when you translated that to what you did on the pitch, it meant a greater intensity to your play. I’ve always thought that happens with Wales teams as well and when you’re playing a team like that, you have to match it or you’re in trouble.

I’d be confident that Ireland will do so on Saturday. Even though Ireland haven’t managed a win in any of the last three encounters, I fully believe they will do it this time. The one thing they need above and beyond everything is to get their setpiece right. They will go nowhere this weekend or any weekend if their setpiece doesn’t become more dependable than it has been. And it probably goes without saying that Mike Ross is going to be badly needed for every match.

The reality of this game though is that Wales are not in the best of shape. They’re a bit depleted compared to other years and I think they’re there for the taking. In a perverse sort of way, my only real concern is that a lot of their players have struggled to find form recently.

I would just be a bit worried that the Six Nations and the Welsh jersey and all that stuff might come together to be the key that unlocks their ability. The likes of Jamie Roberts, Jon Davies and even Sam Warburton just haven’t been hitting the heights we know they’re capable of. Let’s hope that continues.

One way or the other, I believe that if Ireland can carry on their form from the Argentina game, if they can vary their gameplan and handle the intensity that Wales will bring, they will have enough about them.

Ireland to win by six or seven points.

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