Golden regeneration could help kickstart revival
Brian O’Driscoll may have controversially lost the captaincy but the autumn campaign showed signs of revival and with some fresh faces replacing the Grand Slam heroes of 2009, Ireland look in good health
It’s hard to know what to make of Ireland really. Fiji were hapless, for sure, and Argentina looked bunched and were untypically passive in defence.Yet, you’d have to be a right curmudgeon not to be a little excited by what was an encouraging autumnal campaign.
Come kick-off on Saturday in the Millennium Stadium, only four of the starting XV which kicked off the fifth leg of the 2009 Grand Slam in the same ground will line up for the kick-off on Saturday – Rob Kearney (if he recovers from his twisted knee injury), Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy and Jamie Heaslip – with Ronan O’Gara, Donncha O’Callaghan and Rory Best the only other survivors from the match-day squad. Admittedly a strong core of the World Cup team which lost in the quarter-finals to Wales remains, yet it’s been quite a re-generation, and it doesn’t stop there.
Jonny Sexton has assumed the mantle of playmaker in chief and against Argentina showed real signs of the same authority and confidence he routinely demonstrates with Leinster.
Furthermore, the investment in Conor Murray is beginning to reap similar dividends, Donnacha Ryan has emerged as a leader up front, Mike McCarthy has gamely filled the considerable void left by Paul O’Connell and in the absence of Tommy Bowe – who had looked back to his best in the autumn – Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy have refreshed the team’s cutting edge.
David Kilcoyne has matured rapidly to provide even more youthful back-up to the exceptional Cian Healy, and you can’t beat the kind of wisdom on the bench which O’Callaghan, Eoin Reddan and O’Gara possess so as to watch events unfold for 50 or 60 minutes and know what’s required.
Coming off the back of the record 60-0 defeat to the All Blacks in Hamilton, the scars were compounded last November by the gradual loss of three captains (two of them Lions captains) as well as two European Players of the Year and Stephen Ferris.
Yet despite the anti-climactic opening defeat to South Africa, after Sexton had a penalty to earn a 15-3 interval lead, the squad stayed unified, positive and focussed.
The infusion of youth energised the rout of Fiji, a process continued by the selection of Gilroy for his sensational debut a week later, and no matter how careworn Argentina were, no Irish side has ever put a Pumas side to the sword quite like that, with six of the seven tries coming from the backs.
Hence, in contrast to the World Cup which ended with that quarter-final defeat to the Welsh, the scrum-induced collapse in Twickenham when heads dropped, or the Hamilton thrashing when Ireland panicked a week after rattling the All Blacks’ cage, this time the Ireland squad re-assembled with positive vibes from their last stint together.
Co-opting Anthony Foley on to the coaching ticket to oversee the defence, thereby freeing up Les Kiss to focus solely on attack rather than doubling up as he did last season, clearly worked in the autumn, when Gert Smal also resumed his duties. To that mix has now been added the esteemed sports psychologist Enda McNulty.
His work has long been hailed by the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, who might have needed a one-on-one with him in the light of recent events. O’Driscoll might even deduce that those media days weren’t such a high price to pay after all! And you still wouldn’t rule him out of captaining the Lions.
Effectively removing the captaincy from Ireland’s greatest ever player and captain polarised opinion, and didn’t sit right; not least with fellow members of Leinster’s old guard who were not fans of Kidney from his season there in 2004-05. Reggie Corrigan described it as “disgusting” and Shane Horgan as “baffling”.
Apparently, O’Driscoll wasn’t too enamoured with it either, and one ventures it sits uncomfortably with at least some of the squad.
Yet, it had been put up to the officer corps to assume more of the leadership this season, all the more so when O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Rory Best were in turn ruled out last November. Not only did Heaslip coolly assume the captaincy, but Ryan, Sexton and co became lieutenants, and to retain such positive energy in the midst of so much negativity swirling around them made the restorative end to November all the better.
With the infectious enthusiasm of the ultra-positive Heaslip as captain, and McNulty in the background, the squad oughtn’t to be carrying too many negative vibes into their opener, and the captaincy bolter apart, the energised training of November has reputedly been reprised.
And yet caveats remain, not least the importance of the opener in Cardiff and the degree to which Wales have had the Indian sign over Ireland in the last three meetings (not to mention France for a good deal longer).
Sure Wales have had seven successive defeats, are seriously de-powered in the engine room of the pack and are temporarily without Warren Gatland.
But they have won the last three meetings, they are at home, you know they’ll become infused with self-belief once they pull on those red jerseys and, as Kidney suspects, one ventures Gatland’s influence won’t be entirely discarded.
For Ireland to retain their new-found self-belief so much hinges on winning that pivotal opener, and for once the provinces’ form hasn’t been inspiring.
Ultimately, it could be that Ireland will win their three away games and lose their two home games, which may not be enough to satisfy the restless natives.
It would also be just so, so Irish to beat England and then lose to France, or vice versa.
But it’s hard to know really.
Six Nations pointers
With England and France coming to Dublin, this is the itinerary that historically and psychologically gives Ireland its best shot at glory. In the previous six ‘odd’ years of the Six Nations when the big two come to town, Ireland have won a Grand Slam, finished second three times (when twice missing out on the title by points’ difference and once in a Slam shoot-out) and third twice.Piano shifters
The well-being of Mike Ross is paramount to anchor the scrum, the late-developing, but ever improving, Donnacha Ryan has a big role to play managing the line-outs, Jamie Heaslip sets the tone with a phenomenal work-rate and, without Stephen Ferris, the coup de grace will be if Seán O’Brien, missing last autumn and pound for pound arguably the best Irish player of the last few years, gets rumbling.
Jonathan Sexton is the complete outhalf, superb defence and with a kicking, running and passing game, is the orchestrator in chief. Were he to consistently reproduce the form he showed against Argentina he could be the player of the tournament as well as the Lions’ outhalf . With a fit-again and perhaps angry Brian O’Driscoll and even without Tommy Bowe, younger tyros like Zebo, Craig Gilroy and Keith Earls can provide the fizz.
Six Nations Squad
Backs:Gordon D’Arcy (Leinster), Keith Earls (Munster), Luke Fitzgerald (Leinster), Craig Gilroy (Ulster), Paddy Jackson (Ulster), Rob Kearney (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster), Fergus McFadden (Leinster), Dave McSharry (Connacht), Brian O’Driscoll (Leinster), Ronan OGara (Munster), Eoin Reddan (Leinster), Jonathan Sexton (Leinster), Simon Zebo (Munster).
Forwards:Rory Best (Ulster), Tom Court (Ulster), Seán Cronin (Leinster), Michael Bent (Leinster), Declan Fitzpatrick (Ulster), Cian Healy (Leinster), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster, capt), Iain Henderson (Ulster), Chris Henry (Ulster), David Kilcoyne (Munster), Mike McCarthy (Connacht), Kevin McLaughlin (Leinster), Seán O’Brien (Leinster), Donncha O’Callaghan (Munster), Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Mike Ross (Leinster), Donnacha Ryan (Munster), Mike Sherry (Munster), Devin Toner (Leinster).