by Conor O'Shea
This week, it’s the calm before the storm. Players, coaches and supporters took a well earned rest last week and it was also a time for Irish supporters, if not the players, to dream a little.
We will know more later in the week about the ins and outs of this weekend’s match against Scotland. After. There will be the usual speculation of changes on the Irish team, again with most of the talk surround Gordon D’Arcy coming in for Paddy Wallace. Personally, I anticipate that there will be no changes. For Scotland there will be speculation that Mike Blair the Scotland captain and their talisman will lose out to Chris Cusiter but again, I believe Frank Hadden will stick by his man. When push comes to shove the only chance Scotland have of beating Ireland is if Blair, the current captain, produces the sort of performance that everyone knows he is capable of. That would help Scotland to up their tempo to a level that brings the likes of the Evans brothers, Hugo Southwell and Simon Danielli into the game.
Even if the Scots pull out a big one off performance Ireland will have to be well below their best to lose and deny ourselves a tilt at the Grand Slam against Wales. So this week expect the usual platitudes from the Irish camp – and they are right to approach things in this manner - relating to Scotland and our record in Murrayfield. Remember, though, that this is neither the Scotland of old nor the Ireland of old. Ireland’s biggest danger this week is themselves, and with Declan Kidney at the helm my fears over this game are not that severe.
Wales - radical selection policy
Ireland will rightly stick to a similar course to that which they have charted to date. Wales, the other sides with a shout of winning this Championship, have opted for a different strategy with Warren Gatland opting for wholesale changes against Italy.
They will have a new 9, 10, 12 in Dwayne Peel, James Hook and Gavin Henson and seven changes and one positional switch elsewhere in the team. Of course the stated aim all coaches have nowadays is to build a squad and Gatland has said that is part of the thinking behind this selection. Could we accuse Declan Kidney, who has selected the same 15 for the past three games, of not looking forward? Are Ireland in danger of becoming stagnant? Personally, I don’t think so.
Gatland and Kidney have two squads at different stages of development. Wales have a wealth of experience in pivotal positions and can make selection calls without impacting as greatly on the team. Ireland, on the other hand, have yet to unearth the replacements for the likes of Ronan O’Gara and John Hayes in a manner that allows for this type of sudden change.
Ireland and Wales: at different stages
In other positions we have young players who need to get the caps and experience under their belt before we can start to rotate them as Wales do. Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Tomas O’Leary and Stephen Ferris all have replacements at the ready behind them in the shape of Geordan Murphy, Peter Stringer and Denis Leamy to name but three. They could all come in at the drop of the hat and do a great job and they all know their way around international rugby. However, you can’t mess around too much with the young guys at this stage. We have a bench and a squad we can utilise in the right way but Kidney’s selection mix of youth and experience has been a good blend so far. Gatland can tweak all he likes but watch his selection for the crunch game against Ireland: I suspect it will be back to type. In that game, the way France outmuscled Wales up front may prove the template for taking them on in two weeks time. Keep quick ball away from any team and it is difficult to play, keep it away from Wales and they can’t play at all.
Rugby World Cup Sevens - Rugby's Olympic Future?
Looking outside the Six Nations for a minute, we saw another seminal event over the fallow weekend in the shape of the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Dubai. The tournament was won by a young Wales side and that augurs well for them in the future. The Welsh victory was certainly not the only story of that weekend.
Behind the scenes, the International Rugby Board were selling Rugby 7’s to the IOC for inclusion into the 2016 Olympics and as an event it couldn’t have gone better for the IRB. It is not just that Wales beat Argentina in the final. In the quarter finals we saw Samoa beat England, Kenya beat Fiji, Wales beat New Zealand and Argentina beat South Africa. The big guns people said could not lose were beaten and when you couple that with Ireland’s win against Australia and then Portugal beating Ireland, you couldn’t say this was the elite sweeping all.
The women’s tournament – won by Australia - ran in tandem and the sell out crowds will have been noted. This weekend may well have proved to be the biggest weekend in rugby since the game went professional because entry into the Olympics, albeit in the 7’s format could elevate rugby to the next level in world terms.
Nothing ever stands still in the world of sport or rugby but for the moment 2016 and IOC decisions are a long way off, it is time to get back to living our dream.
I’ll come back to the Scotland game in a couple of days when we see the teams and hopefully will still be as positive then as I feel now. As I keep on saying this week is all in the head because if both Scotland and Ireland play to their best Ireland will win and we will be going to Cardiff to take on Warren Gatland and Wales for the Grand Slam. That is a nice, but dangerous, way to go into the match.
Declan Kidney, the greatest amateur psychologist in the game, has his hardest week yet!