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Six Nations 2014 – More Blind Faith Or A Real Shot For Ireland?

Courtesy of irishrugby.ie

Courtesy of irishrugby.ie

Every year it’s always the same. Our year, things are different, did you see them in the November Series? Yet for the last four years Ireland have brought only one thing to the Six Nations, inconsistency. 2010, we were following up an unbeaten year and finished second, but from there it has been near torture for fans. Multiple implosions in 2011, a lack of force in 2012 and of course the near wooden spoon of 2013, it has been tough being an Irish rugby fan. So then is this faith in the Schmidt era based on solid thought, or is it simply that it just couldn’t get any worse?

Well, let’s show some stats first. So far Schmidt has taken us closer to the ultimate glory of thwarting New Zealand than any other coach, and that was only his third game in command. We also cannot ignore his Leinster record too, where he won every piece of silverware on offer, including two Heineken Cups in three seasons. He has a club name built to stand alongside the Vern Cotter’s and Guy Novès’. But we can’t forget the tried and tested formula that is the difference between the Cup and international.

The principals remain the same though, Schmidt is a stickler for detail. Look at what he turned Leinster into, taking a solid and winning team but deciding they could be better, turning them into a slick passing machine that could open up any and every defence. You need only look at them now, still solid but lacking polish, to see how much this was the direct influence of Joe Schmidt. He will want to do the same with this Irish team, and he has the players to do so, even more so now given he has three other pools to pluck from.

So what do we look out for this Sunday? Well, bar two freak fixtures, Scotland have been beatable to Ireland  with relative ease in the last ten tournaments or so. The irony is that having them as an opener in any other year could be considered a damp squib. Not so in 2014. With Schmidt kicking off his coaching in the Six Nations with this fixture, a certain breaking in is allowed. His selection shows this to a degree, with the relative straightforward nature of Scotland compared to say Wales allowing him to plant Kearney on the wing, Marshall in the centre and Henry into the backrow. That isn’t to say that all three aren’t deserving of their place on form, but there’s more experience available that could have been thrown into the starting team in order to play it safe, as would probably have been the case against stronger opposition.

These backline choices in particular should lead to some exciting developments and revelations, though you would feel that short of a spectacular match winning display that Trimble will be removed for the remainder of the tournament with the return of Zebo, Bowe and Fitzgerald. Still, we would hope to see some measure of the Schmidt brand raising its head across the backs. In the pack, Leinster have always shown a parity bordering supremacy in the front five, and of course the illustrious Sean O’Brien contributes massively to the strength of the forwards, but even without the Tullow Tank, Healy, Heaslip, O’Connell et al would hopefully be able to usher in a new era of Irish forward play more akin to all their respective shows for the provinces.

So are we blinded by the February optimism that grips us year on year, or do Ireland stand a chance? The standard across the board, even from Schmidt, is that the home games should be in hand, and one away win would be a result. It’s hard to disagree, though never before has the results of other games throughout the tournament had more potential outcome for Ireland. If France don’t start with a win, the downward spiral they slip on for the next seven weeks should see them dead and buried once Ireland travel to Paris. Similarly, if England don’t build momentum, they too could be caught cold by Ireland. Ultimately, that single away win coupled with “defending the Aviva” as Schmidt put it, would almost certainly see Ireland in great steed for a Grand Slam shoot out on the final weekend of the Six Nations. Dream this dream now, because we all know how easily it tends to slip away.

Read Fergal Cantwell’s full preview of the opening Six Nations weekend

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