by George Hook
At the start of this Championship, I didn’t think Ireland would win the Grand Slam.
Why? Unlike my colleague Brent Pope, who saw the potential for Ireland to win the Grand Slam from an early stage, I did not at that point fully appreciate the difference Declan Kidney made, and I was also overly affected by their poor performances in the autumn. I now believe there is a sense of destiny about this team and this coach that makes me think Ireland are likely to do it.
However, you have to take into account Ireland’s historic inability to win Grand Slams. When we talk about the Grand Slam, we are talking about something Ireland have not achieved for 60 years and Wales have in the past often been the team that has thwarted our ambitions. That goes back at least as far as 1951 when the Slam-winning heroes of 1948 had the chance to win another but were held to a draw in Cardiff in their final match.
There are other challenges to be overcome. The history of the Six Nations Championship shows that home advantage is crucially important - the best example of that is the 1973 Five Nations Championship, in which every match was won by the home team and the Championship ended in a five-way tie.
History says there will be an upset......
This weekend, France go to Twickenham, Wales go to Rome and Ireland go to Murrayfield. The conventional wisdom suggests that we will have three away wins but history tells us that is unlikely and that there will be at least one upset. I just hope it’s not us.
But Ireland could be beaten by Scotland. If they do lose, it will be in a tight game and part of the reason will be that Scotland are unlikely to play with any ambition.
It is crucially important for the Scottish coach, Frank Hadden, and for certain Scottish players to garner some respectability from this fixture and, to that end, the aim will first of all be to keep the score down.
Similar thinking has caused Scotland to pick Chris Paterson at full-back. Paterson is not there because he is a good player in that position; he is there because he is their best goal-kicker and he gives Scotland the capacity to kick penalties and stay in the game if it is tight.
If they can do that for an hour, Irish players will suddenly begin to doubt and Scottish players will begin to believe and that is how upsets happen in team sports.
Ireland's four changes - Leamy/Heaslip change a risk?
The next variable is the team selection. Ireland have made four changes, three of which make sense on the basis that they are 50/50 calls. In fact, Gordon D’Arcy, Peter Stringer and Rory Best arguably improve the side.
But the fourth change, the decision to pick Denis Leamy ahead of Jamie Heaslip, is difficult to comprehend. Heaslip has probably been our best individual attacking player – back or forward - in this Championship.
Attempting to unpick Declan Kidney’s thinking has defied better men than me, but I will paint a possible scenario: this change has been made because Leamy has not played a lot of top-level rugby since his injury and Kidney may be trying to bring Leamy on so that he is in the best possible physical and mental condition ahead of the possible Grand Slam match in the last round.
However, in doing so he has taken a clear risk with Heaslip’s head. Heaslip is not happy with this selection despite whatever Kidney has said to him. I would say it came as a bombshell to him when Kidney took him aside and told him he wasn’t starting. He has only cracked the team relatively recently and has played out of his skin in the Championship so far to the point that he is now on the cusp of selection for the Lions and suddenly, he is out of the starting XV.
The other issue that will be at the back of these players' minds is Lions selection. For example, if Best is number one ahead of Flannery, or Leamy is number one ahead of Heaslip in the Wales game, it will definitely impact on the Lions selection debate.
There is also a concern from a team point of view because Leamy is a totally different type of back-row forward to Heaslip. Heaslip is about moving the ball at pace, power off the back of the scrum and athleticism in the air. Leamy does none of that. He is the type of player who is much happier in a dog-fight and I find it very hard to believe that Kidney wants that against Scotland because ideally, Ireland should surgically take Scotland apart rather than steamroll over them.
Stringer switch should give O'Gara more time.....
The next key is Ronan O’Gara. Teams are targeting O’Gara not just because of who he is but also because he is the fly-half and that position is what makes Ireland tick. Everyone knows that if you successfully shut us down there, Ireland are reduced to taking you on in a wrestling match.
Italy and England both did it to us and only France, who laid back off us, really allowed us to play rugby. Scotland will presumably play a similar type of press defence to Italy, only with more wit and invention.
Ireland may negate that through the selection of Stringer at scrum-half, a change I have been calling for since the first match as his passing will give O’Gara an extra half-second on the ball and that extra time could be crucial over the course of the match.
I think Wales will beat Italy but maybe not by as much as they would if they put out their very best team, and points difference will be crucial. France go to Twickenham where they will find England difficult to beat if not actually good. But if they can win, France could end up with a very strong chance of winning the Championship if everyone wins this weekend. They are perfectly capable of scoring a lot of points against Italy.
But again, the thing that worries me most about this weekend is the tradition of the Six Nations Championship.
One of the favourites is going to lose, and I just don’t want it to be us.