By Brendan Cole
An air of expectation surrounds Ireland as they head into the 2014 edition of the Six Nations Championship, which makes a welcome change after four years of underachievement.
That sense of optimism at this time of year is not new, and it actually exists despite the fixture list, which requires Ireland to travel to London and Paris and would not usually be considered favourable.
But the appointment of Joe Schmidt as head coach and the superb performance against New Zealand at the end of the November series have fuelled a justifiable sense that things will be different this time around.
That said, a dose of realism is needed as well.
Ireland ran the All Blacks close with a performance that was deservedly praised. But France and England both caused the same opposition major problems, and in both cases did so without playing particularly well.
It must also be taken into consideration that a week before their heroics against New Zealand, Ireland were dominated by an Australia side that, among other things, demolished the Irish scrum.
Twickenham and the Stade de France have both been the scene of humiliations in that area in recent seasons. Ireland will need to be rock solid at both venues if they are to secure the away results they would need to harbour any tilt at the title.
As for Schmidt, he is not the first the coach to have his way of doing things elevated to the status of the mystic. In fact, precisely the same thing happened to Declan Kidney on several occasions during his tenures as both Munster and Ireland coach.
That said, the Schmidt way gives off all the right vibes, signalling a coach who is in-tune with where the edge in top-level rugby is right now.
An improvement on the post-Grand Slam period of the Kidney era is a reasonable expectation.
No doubt Ireland are contenders for this title and they might even have been considered favourites were it not for some key injuries.
If Sean O’Brien and Donnacha Ryan were available, along with long-term absentee Stephen Ferris, Ireland would have had arguably the best pack in the competition, and an eight that virtually picked itself.
Instead, Schmidt will have to do something of a smoke and mirrors job when picking his forwards, though with the likes of Cian Healy, Paul O’Connell and Jamie Heaslip available and in excellent form, Ireland will still boast a very competitive pack.
The backline is also a worry, not least due to the question mark over the form of the key man at out-half. Jonathan Sexton would have moved seamlessly from the Leinster set-up into the Irish one had he chosen to stick with his home province.
Now, he is catching flights from Paris, trying to get up to speed with a style of rugby that is very different to the form he competes in from week to week.
Can he adapt to the accuracy and tempo that Schmidt’s style requires? The hope is that he will thrive on the change.
Alongside him, having missed out against Australia, Conor Murray has ended the scrum-half debate for now on the back of his excellent form for Munster, brilliance against New Zealand and a much improved pass.
Mike Ross, Rory Best, Healy, O’Connell, Heaslip, Brian O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney are the other certainties and give the team a solid looking spine, while Peter O’Mahony is also in pole position to start every game at blindside.
Gordon D’Arcy too can expect to get the jersey thanks to his own excellent form. The fact that Luke Marshall is not exactly pulling up trees for Ulster makes that decision a little easier.
The likes of Sean Cronin and Dave Kilcoyne offer high quality support in the tight five.
But there are big calls to make in the second row, back row, centre and on both wings.
Schmidt’s decisions will not necessarily follow the logic of the public debate, and curveball selections, particularly for the away games against France and England, can be expected.
Younger players like Robbie Henshaw can also expect game time against Scotland and Italy.
Second row is perhaps the least satisfying conundrum. On the face of it, Devin Toner and Mike McCarthy are in competition for the second row place alongside Paul O’Connell, but Iain Henderson and Dan Tuohy must both be considered dark horses, particularly against the bigger packs Ireland will face away from home.
At seven, Ireland need players capable of disrupting the opposition flow and Chris Henry fits that bill best at the moment. Jordi Murphy also has claims on the basis that he gets around the pitch as well as any Irish forward and his important steal late in the day against England Saxons will not have gone unnoticed.
Tommy O’Donnell also has strong claims on the basis of his ball-carrying and work-rate but struggled to make a major impact as a turnover merchant in the same match.
On the wings, Dave Kearney’s level-headed accuracy could see him get one start with Fergus McFadden and Luke Fitzgerald battling for the place on the far side. Simon Zebo could yet have a role to play though the out of sorts Craig Gilroy looks to have missed the boat for this tournament.
So, a starting XV of Healy, Ross, Best, Toner, O’Connell, O’Mahony, Henry, Heaslip, Murray, Sexton, D Kearney, D’Arcy, O’Driscoll, McFadden/Fitzgerald and R Kearney? Possibly.
The injuries in the pack, the fixture list and that question mark over the scrum combine to mean that Ireland can’t be considered favourites, but they should win their games in Dublin and possibly one away from home, with France still not looking particularly well organised.
A finish inside the top two is well within Ireland's grasp and that would prove a positive start for Schmidt's first Six Nations campaign in charge.