We’re always optimistic at this time of year because we always forget what went before
Ireland have a decent chance to win the Six Nations but we can’t get carried away with the feelgood factor
Wing Simon Zebo runs in the first try during Ireland’s opening Six Nations game against Wales last year at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images
To listen to Irish people talking about the Six Nations, you’d nearly think we were the defending champions.
You’d certainly think we had won more than one championship since 1985. There’s so much optimism around the place, it’s as if last year has been completely wiped from the memory banks.
It’s coming from players, from supporters, from the press – and this in a year where Ireland have to go to Twickenham and the Stade de France.
In fairness, it’s really no different to what happens every year. Irish squads nearly always arrive at this week full of optimism, a lot of the players come into camp off good Heineken Cup campaigns with their heads up.
They look at the schedule and think, ‘Yeah, we can win there and there and we have no fear of anybody at home’.
It all seems straightforward when there hasn’t been a game played.
I remember being around the squad in Carton House just 12 months ago. There was a huge buzz around the place. You felt it talking to players and chatting amongst the media.
Everybody bought into it. Everybody felt that going to Wales for the first match was going to make or break the tournament. The one thing nobody predicted was Ireland would go there, get a win and still end up having their worst Six Nations in years, not winning another game.
We took it for granted Scotland and Italy would be beaten. We were all wrong.
And yet here we are, the week leading up to another Six Nations and everybody’s full of beans again.
It isn’t hard to see why. Once the country is involved, people just naturally want to get behind their team – they want to think the best of them.
This time around, the New Zealand game is still fresh is people’s minds and we have three provinces in the last eight of the Heineken Cup.
Injury-wise, we’re only really missing Seán O’Brien and Tommy Bowe – and even then, Bowe should be back in time for the England game.
So it’s understandable people are optimistic.
But part of it too is we forget the past very easily. All that optimism last year was understandable at the time because the provinces were going well and we had beaten Argentina in November.
But we forgot it was only the previous summer that New Zealand had beaten us 60-0 and we’d lost to Wales and got a hiding from England in the Six Nations.
I fell into that trap myself. Anyone I spoke to before the Six Nations last year, I told them this Ireland team had a real chance. I thought the tournament was there for the taking with England and France coming to Dublin.
Obviously in the end, injuries had a big part to play and we couldn’t have foreseen them coming in such a glut.
But they exposed a lack of strength in depth in the Ireland squad that our optimism had caused us to miss.
I just think this time around we need to be a bit more wary. A win on Sunday will only fuel the optimism but I think we have to learn the lesson of last year.
The only thing that came out of the opening-day win in Wales was complacency. It wasn’t the springboard to a great tournament at all.
Instead, England came to the Aviva the following weekend and killed all the optimism stone dead.
That happens so often in the Six Nations and it’s one of the reasons it’s such a tough tournament to win.
When you start well, when you get a big win first day out, you become a target. Other countries see you up on a pedestal and because they’re so familiar with you, they know they have it in them to bring you down off it.
That England game highlighted another problem Ireland have had over the years – the attitude that once the Grand Slam and Triple Crown are gone, there’s no prize left to play for. Even if nobody would say out straight out, the feeling was always that you went into the tournament aiming at a Triple Crown at least. If a Grand Slam followed, so much the better. But winning the championship didn’t carry that same sort of weight.
If you got beaten by England or Scotland or Wales it took the wind out of your sails right away.
Yet for whatever reason, other countries have been able to bounce back and go on to win the championship.
Irish players and coaches have had to get their head around the fact it’s still very prestigious to win the whole thing out.
Wales did it last year, after all, and they did it the toughest way imaginable. After they lost to Ireland, they went to Paris the following weekend and won. And this was on the back of having lost nine games in a row, remember.
They brushed it off and got momentum going again and it all came to a head in the last day with a showdown against England who were going for the Grand Slam.
Ireland have to get into the mindset that there’s still something to aim for even after a defeat. They can’t be derailed by one game or put off by whatever injuries come their way.
Joe Schmidt will be looking to get Ireland out of the pattern of struggling with games they’re expected to win and getting really up for games when nobody gives them a chance.
The team will be announced on Friday but I think most people could name it today.
That’s a good thing and a bad thing. It creates stability but it can also make for complacency sometimes. I don’t think that will be the case under Schmidt because he’s not a guy who is afraid to make big calls. He’s already made one by leaving Simon Zebo out of the squad.
Up for grabs
Once O’Brien was gone, the only place up for grabs in the pack became a straight choice between Chris Henry and Tommy O’Donnell.
I think Schmidt will probably go with Henry and it’s probably just about the right call on the basis of Henry’s experience. Otherwise the pack picks itself.
Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton are shoo-ins as well, as are Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy and Rob Kearney.
Of them all, O’Driscoll is the one who isn’t playing that well but you can’t drop him. You’ve got to trust him to find his form.
If it was up to me, I’d have Zebo in the team. He’d have been the first winger I’d have picked, ahead of any of them. With Bowe and Keith Earls out, it’s amazing to me he can’t make it into the squad.
I know he’s been out injured for a while and he hasn’t as much rugby played as some of the others but you could say the same for McFadden. It obviously just comes down to the coach’s preference.
Joe Schmidt likes players who get their head down and who do the simple things well. He likes players who execute the plans he’s laid out for them. Maybe Zebo is a bit too extravagant or too off-the-cuff. Whatever the reason, he won’t be playing this weekend. It’s a pity, because he has an x factor Ireland could be doing with.
As for the tournament itself, I will go for France to win it. But of course that depends on them being as good as they can be. There’s every chance they’ll be absolutely rubbish – we know that from watching them over the years. But they have Ireland and England at home so they’ve every chance of winning the whole thing.
We say the same thing every year with the French – you can’t be sure which French team will turn up. I wonder do they say the same about Ireland in France though? Because when you look back over the years, we’re every bit as unpredictable as they are.
The big difference is they have far more championships and Grand Slams than we do.
England have the most structured and powerful team in the competition and Wales are going for three in a row. So for all the optimism around the Ireland team, I would just tread a bit carefully. We’ve been bitten too many times.