by Brent Pope
This is the Six Nations, so you just never know but I think Ireland have to look at the glass as being half-full – things like the quality of the Irish team on paper, the Irish Lions contenders, the Heineken Cup achievements - and be optimistic. Wales are the defending Champions and although it doesn't tell the whole story, you ask yourself 'could Munster beat the Ospreys?' Of course they could. Wales are no better man for man than the Irish team.
If I was coach I would set out my stall to win the home games and the two games you're expected to win and then go to Wales and have a shot at a Grand Slam. France and England are stuttering along a bit and are beatable at Croke Park and though there are no easy games, you would hope to beat Scotland and Italy away from home. That would put Ireland in a great position.
I also think Wales may drop one game before they meet Ireland. They have England at home but then play France away on the third weekend. History tells us that it is very difficult to win back-to-back titles and although Wales were the best side in the November series, I don't think they are by any means unbeatable.
England: momentum is key
Wales, France and Ireland are perhaps the three main contenders although England, may not go as badly as people are saying. Momentum is a key to the Six Nations and if England were to get a decent win, maybe bringing in some new players, anything could happen. They have the player base to change things quickly. However, the real problem is they don't have a real leader or out-half. They are trying all these players there but don't seem to be able to get it right in the most important position on the field. Between them, Ireland and Wales have Ronan O'Gara, Stephen Jones and James Hook – talismanic players in the key position.
Looking more closely at Ireland, the squad was mostly as you would expect. Of the guys who were left out, the omission of Eoin Reddan was a strange one for me. It's great for Peter Stringer and there's been no better player for Ireland over the years but Reddan is a few years younger and looking ahead to the next World Cup he arguably offers a better bet.
In terms of the team itself, I think that the forward pack that started against Argentina (Horan, Flannery, Hayes, O'Callaghan, O'Connell, Ferris, Wallace, Heaslip) will be the one that starts the first match against France. The tight calls are at hooker and number eight and I don't think Denis Leamy has enough big games under his belt this season although he has been playing well over the last few weeks so Jamie Heaslip may get nod. Between Best and Flannery, Flannery has the work rate in the loose and that may swing it for him.
Kidney may opt for provincial combinations
In the backs, Rob Kearney has sewn up the full-back spot and the choices are on wings and in one of the centre, where there is a question over who can play alongside Brian O'Driscoll. Again, Gordon D'Arcy can't really be considered because he hasn't had a match at this level for well over a year so I think they will possibly stick with the status quo and pick Luke Fitzgerald and O'Driscoll at 12 and 13. Another other option would be Paddy Wallace, who is a good attacker and passer of the ball, but defensively you have to wonder how he would hold up against the French. Declan Kidney could also put Earls in the centre and possibly move Fitzgerald out to the wing although I don't think he will do that myself.
The thing is, you can't tinker too much with the backline because if you start tweaking and experimenting too much on limited preparation it can be dangerous. O'Driscoll and Fitzgerald play together at Leinster and O'Gara, Stringer and O'Leary have the same thing at Munster. That may prove important.
Captaincy - big decision
Kidney has already made one big decision: the captaincy. To me, it was a major surprise that Paul O'Connell was overlooked as choosing him could have made this more like the start of a new era. It's a new World Cup cycle and it's also a big chance for Ireland to deliver something bigger than a Triple Crown in this competition. I remember how when Munster's form dipped around Christmas, O'Connell came back and suddenly they were on another level. Is it slightly political? I don't know, but maybe there is an element of Kidney making sure the team is not all Munster.
But the choice has been made and the other dimension to this is that it's ridiculous for people to be saying that O'Driscoll is not the real captain, or that Paul O'Connell is really running the team and whatever else. At this stage, Brian O'Driscoll is the captain of Ireland. End of story.
On the other hand, I would say that if things go badly a transition could happen pretty quickly; France is a huge game for O'Driscoll in particular.
It's always a tough tournament to call but there's a real chance that Ireland can do something special. I could see them winning the Championship, but possibly not the Grand Slam.