It is hard to muster up any excitement for the Six Nations. Firstly, I used to play in these games. Secondly, as the rugby correspondent noted this week, empty stadiums are diluting the big occasions.
I was one of the privileged few working down in Thomond Park on Saturday night. Tadhg Beirne snaffling Leinster possession on the Munster try line would, in any other time, have reversed momentum. With hoardings and plastic seats transformed into a cacophony of noise, the visitors would have been reminded of their inability to protect the ball as red jerseys slow-walked to the lineout.
From the eir Sport perch – Tommy Bowe, Peter Stringer and I – should not have heard Tadhg’s battle cry through the din. But we did. A near impossible turnover should conjure up all sorts of kinetic energy to drain the blood from Leinster faces.
Instead, this herculean act barely mattered in a vast empty space. Leinster kept coming. We weren’t in Thomond Park anymore.
On the drive home I realised that home advantage barely exists anymore. Right when we need it most, with England and France coming to Dublin, the value is next to nothing. The flip side is defeats in Cardiff, Rome or Murrayfield cannot be blamed on the emotional lift the opposition would normally get from their crowd. Just like our players can no longer rely on a delirious Aviva Stadium.
Travel is the only disadvantage now. Mistakes no longer heap as much pressure on an individual. Whichever coach can get their players mentally ready for this challenge will prevail. In the silent arena game management is king.
Munster perfected the art of feeding off their Red Army. Ireland also leaned on the Lansdowne roar over the years but that is no longer a valid complaint. Joe Schmidt saw to that with a playbook that yielded magical days in Chicago, Twickenham and Paris. We all heard The Fields of Athenry bellowing around these old grounds on historic days for Irish sport but victory came from flawless preparation and internal motivations.
Schmidt's expertise was paired with Andy Farrell in 2016. Now we are seeing a similar appointment in Paul O'Connell. I do not believe that Paulie's role is to rouse the troops as he did so effectively as a player. The likes of James Ryan crave his technical expertise as much as his experience. They need O'Connell the lineout coach to be on a comparable level to the mentors that have come before him.
The Ireland lineout has to move past the mess of 2020. We all saw what happened, particularly in Paris, as this young team tried to win the Championship. The meltdown that followed has led directly to the recruitment of Paul.
If we are honest, second place in the championship would be a successful return.
Now – right off the bat – the new forwards coach must deliver. Just like Gert Smal put a pack together in 2009 that captured a Grand Slam. The Championship was also won in 2014 in the first season under current All Blacks forwards coach John Plumtree.
O’Connell knows this is the standard having been a central figure in both of these campaigns.
The difference in 2021 is expectations are significantly lower. If we are honest, second place in the championship would be a successful return. Third, fourth or even fifth is a very real prospect if the coaches are unable to correct the glaring issues revealed last year when – to be fair – Farrell flooded the squad with fresh blood.
But before Ireland can start winning with any sort of authority again, O’Connell and Ryan must fix the lineout. Breakdown efficiency and the scrum solidity are next on the list of priorities.
Ireland knows how to overwhelm Scotland and Wales but if Farrell and O’Connell are sitting before the cameras, grim faced after another malfunctioning set-piece, we will know where the problem lies.
The coaches have explained why so many areas malfunctioned in 2020. I doubt everyone agreed with their reasoning but they were taken at face value. The time for such latitude has passed.
In theory, Farrell’s loosening of the reins in camp was the right decision. In practice, several unforeseen issues appeared, like the struggles to secure their own possession.
If the coaches are unable to transfer their philosophy from training paddock to match day, we might be entering the realm of Chelsea skewering their beloved Frank Lampard after just 18 months. Of course, the IRFU is the antithesis of Roman Abramovich’s ruthlessly fickle approach to running a sporting organisation. Nobody is getting sacked in the middle of their contract simply because it costs too much but the pressure will be no less severe on Farrell, O’Connell and the rest if these glaring problems are not solved against Wales.
That should focus the mind. Looking through the squad, the starting XV picks itself. This is good and bad news. The loss of one of the four frontline props – welcome back Dave Kilcoyne and fingers crossed Tadhg Furlong – or another Johnny Sexton injury will make a mid-table finish seem acceptable.
The squad is strong everywhere else with the return of Rhys Ruddock and Iain Henderson providing a massive lift.
There is no disguising the fact that Ireland edged Scotland for third place last year.
The time for experimentation has passed. Several young outhalves, clearly, are not deemed to be ready. Farrell’s predecessors, Declan Kidney and Schmidt, won the championship on their first attempt before backing it up with a second-place finish in 2010 and retaining the title in 2015.
There is no disguising the fact that Ireland edged Scotland for third place last year. Expectations are lower as a result but the next two months will mould the team’s character under Farrell. 2020 brought us back to brave yet inaccurate performances at Twickenham and in Paris.
It can always get worse.
The upshot is the sight of Peter O’Mahony in the form of his life – right on cue for a new contract – with his work over the ball and distribution making him indispensable. Ruddock offers a serious physical presence off the bench.
A long-standing issue is the only provincial starter at outhalf behind Sexton is Billy Burns. His defensive frailty will have opposing forwards licking their lips.
Conor Murray is inching back towards his best with Jamison Gibson-Park or Craig Casey well able to change up the style of attack.
As much as there is heat on O’Connell to fix the lineout, Mike Catt’s attacking strategy must be visible. Catt has the personnel to compare with any backline I featured in over 17 seasons. They just need the ball.
England and France are moving away from Ireland but Wales, Scotland and Italy have yet to pass us out. That’s the current lie of the land. It can go either way in the next two months. Third place is base camp. Time to scale the north face.
Not-so splendid isolation
The Six Nations can defuse a ticking time bomb.
Carton House is a giant Georgian building on a picturesque landscape inside a walled 12th century estate. Its splendid isolation attracted Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful to Shell Cottage in the 1990s. It is a slightly better environment than what most of us have to cope with nowadays but the long stretches in camp until March 20th will put enormous strain on young families.
With three kids under five, I am not sure the D’Arcy clan would grant a permission slip if I was recalled by Andy Farrell. For England’s veteran prop Joe Marler the six figure compensation did not add up.
I feel that this is a serious mental health issue for certain players. The 30-plus Ireland squad will begin to notice the lost day off on a Wednesday to have a coffee in town or play a round of golf.
Such release valves - after a heavy physical price being exacted by training and matches - are now gone. The coaches have enough to be doing but staving off boredom will be so important during this Six Nations.
Also, to ensure the tournament avoids cancellations, the organisers need to do something about Scottish, Welsh and Italian players popping their bubbles to play for English or French clubs on gap weeks or when they are not selected.
We have seen plenty of half measures these past 11 months. The inability to communicate with neighbouring jurisdictions has cost thousands of lives. Rugby must avoid such glaringly obvious mistakes. Join the dots, because the cost is far too expensive. The alternative is to have lads playing Russian roulette by releasing them to their clubs and increasing the odds of infecting an entire national squad on their return.