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Six Nations 2014 – Testing Times

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After the highs and lows of the November Internationals, Joe Schmidt must look to the Six Nations Championship as a chance to show what Ireland can really offer. The World Cup in 2015 is being held just across the pond and all eyes will be on England and their neighbouring nations. Schmidt has two Six Nations campaigns to get through before the World Cup becomes an issue to concentrate on. So what are Ireland’s chances in this year’s competition?

It wouldn’t be difficult to improve on last year’s dismal campaign, that had started so well. Beating the reigning champions at home in Cardiff was obviously the best start possible for the Irish. It wasn’t only the points that mattered but it was the way in which the team went about getting them. Yes, they were out on their feet for the last ten minutes or so and they allowed Wales back into that game just after half time, from a 3-30 score line, Ireland held on to win 22-30. It was the first half performance that included hunger, a controlled aggression and an ability to finish that left us feeling that maybe just maybe, another slam was on the cards. It must be said that Wales had suffered seven consecutive defeats (4 versus Australia) and were without their regular head coach Warren Gatland, previous to the Irish game. Still the Irish looked good. Ireland lost out at home to England in a kicking contest on a wet, windy day at home. England however were the favourites after taking care of the All Blacks, the previous November. For Ireland it went from bad to worse, losing to Scotland, drawing with France and for the first time, losing to Italy. Overall a dismal campaign that they will want to forget.

This run of results ultimately called time on Declan Kidney’s time in charge. Speculation was rife about who would take over the helm but when Joe Schmidt was approached and showed some interest, that was that. His success with Leinster more than showed a pedigree that the I.R.F.U were keen to utilise. His first game in charge came last November with the visit of Samoa. A good win, with Ireland showing their attacking ability to be crisp and true. Their defence not overly tested by the Samoans, good start for the new man in charge. Australia followed and what a difference a week made. The Irish defence as porous as a sieve, the Wallabies ran riot and the moans from the crowd summed up a bad day at the office. The All Blacks were probably the last team that Ireland would have wanted after Australia to end the series. Again like against Wales last year, it was a first half performance that put the home side on the cusp of a first ever win against the New Zealanders. Alas and what happened next is known so well, thirty seconds were all that was needed to hold on. It proved too much and The All Blacks squeezed out a two point win and with it sucked all the air out of the stadium. Highs, lows, highs, lows, what Ireland need to concentrate on is the positives. They stood toe to toe with the best in the world and yes they came up short but what a performance.

This year’s campaign begins at home to Scotland on 2nd of February at 3.00. Ireland owe Scotland from last year and will feel this is a great opportunity to get off to a winning start. A week later, Ireland are at home again, this time to the current championship holders Wales. This will be a real test for Joe Schmidt and his charges. If the aggression and effort that went into the first half against the All Blacks is sustained for seventy odd minutes, then Ireland can beat anyone in front of them. This is followed by a trip to Twickenham two weeks later, a happy hunting ground for the Irish and they will have no real fear going there. If the Welsh game is a test, well then this game could be a decider. Ireland will host Italy on March 8th and will be very anxious to put the Italians back in their place. Losing to them last year was a sore one for the players and they will relish the opportunity to put things right, especially if they’re still in the hunt for silverware. The final game, a week later will be away to France. Never an easy place to go and get a win. The last two meetings between the sides have finished honours even, again even on the road Ireland will feel that they compete against the French. France and England away is never the best chance of winning the championship but maybe Joe Schmidt can bring something extra to the effort.

It will be, we are told Brian O’Driscoll’s farewell tour. I hope not, what an asset he would be in the World Cup build up. I would hope that Schmidt bloods the players that need to be blooded. I feel that Ireland have a realistic chance of doing very well at the 2015 World Cup. I would like to see the likes of Craig Gilroy, Darren Cave and Simon Zebo playing major roles in this year’s campaign. There are others, there are many and we seem too blessed with selection problems at this early stage. Luke Fitzgerald would love to get back to where he was, Luke Marshall was unlucky last year and seemed to get concussed during every game he played in. He has shown through his efforts with Ulster that he is a prospect worth taking note of. Success is often achieved through what the guys not playing do during the year, serious competition for places ultimately results in a serious team. As well as pushing the starting team to be the best that they can be, it instils a confidence in the squad when the man coming from the bench is just as adequate at his job as the man he is replacing. 2014 is a year to build but just because it’s a re-building year doesn’t mean that expectations should drop. It should be a year to look forward to, for players and supporters alike. If Brian O’Driscoll does indeed call time on an exemplary career, then it would only be fitting that he leaves with something to take away. The Welsh game will be earmarked by the media as the Gatland versus O’Driscoll show but they will be wrong. It’s Gatland versus all of Ireland and although a victory against him and Wales won’t make right his decision with the Lions, I’m positive as a nation, we will take great satisfaction in winning that one.

Image courtesy of Sky Sports

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