By Bernard Jackman
I had a real sense of excitement on Tuesday when Declan Kidney announced his starting team for our RBS 6 Nations opener in Cardiff on Saturday.
We have Sean O’Brien, Rory Best, Brian O'Driscoll and Rob Kearney back from injury, but it was the two speedsters selected on the wings that showed the ambition that we are hoping to play with from now on.
Simon Zebo has been electric all season and although Craig Gilroy has not had as much game time in a quality Ulster side, Tommy Bowe's injury has come at a good time for him. Gilroy has a real sharpness about him that will worry opposition defenses.
It is a big change from all the doom and gloom in Irish rugby circles after the disastrous 60-0 defeat to the All Blacks in June and then the narrow defeat to the Springboks, when we looked to be in control of the game.
The non-cap international against Fiji showed that there is plenty of young talent in the country and Gilroy was the big winner using the opportunity to force his way into the full team the following week against our long term rivals the Pumas in the Aviva.
Having scored a hat-trick against the undercooked Fijians, he scored another brilliant try in what was a very impressive 46-24 win against a Argentinian side that may have been tired but which had been competing strongly in the Rugby Championship.
Where are Ireland now? Since 2009, the team has been dogged by inconsistency, but when they have played well they have thrown caution to the wind and played at a very high tempo from the kick off.
Working in France now I realise just how high the fitness levels of the provinces and the Irish team compare to our competition.
As well as bringing fitness into the game, I believe that we need to settle on a style of play that suits the skill sets of our team.
Up front at we have a good roster of big abrasive ball-carriers. I am referring to Cian Healy, Donnacha Ryan, Mike McCarthy, O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony in particular.
Ireland: power up front and footwork out wide
Apart from our half backs we don't have the biggest backline, especially compared to the Welsh one we face on Saturday. But our centres have great feet and ability to create space out wide while our wings have real gas. At full-back, Rob Kearney is the best in the world under the high ball, elusive on the counter-attack and strong coming into the line.
The November internationals were the first where Les Kiss has had sole responsibility for the attack and there was a lot to like about how the team set up to play with the ball.
Ireland were very direct off out of touch, attacking the seam between the back of the lineout and the ten channel really well through good delivery and subtle running lines.
Once you get over the gain line with your first strike, the rest of the game is easy.
From the scrum they tended to strike wider and they were not afraid to play out the back, which troubled the Argentinians rush defense as they left doglegs in their line, which our backs could exploit.
Under Eddie O Sullivan Ireland had great success against the Welsh by stuffing the ball up the jumper and “beating them up” and looking at their selection against Ireland I would say that their back line is their stronger unit.
Their back row are very good defenders but they have a long list of injuries in the second row which means that they will start with the Dragons converted back row Andrew Coombs at lock.
There has to be a doubt if he is up to International level at lock.
Their front row are all excellent players but Gethin Jenkins has been warming the bench at Toulon all season. In France, they see his scrummaging as a weakness. Adam Jones, who will most likely be the Lions starting tight head, is only recently back from Injury.
I expect Ireland to use the forwards around the corner of the ruck and through pick and goes to engage with the Welsh pack and create space for the backs to have get one-on-ones.
Ireland's strategy should play to their strengths
This will also play to Conor Murray’s strengths, as he is an excellent ball-carrier around the ruck. Munster’s new "wide-wide" pattern, where they play off ten, negates his power game but I think he will have a strong tournament, as Ireland will play to his strength.
But it is Ireland's defensive strategy that will be the most interesting. We suffered from some poor refereeing decisions in against Wales last year but on the day, our defense was unusually passive. We stood off them, particularly in the backs, and they took advantage. As I mentioned, they are far bigger than us so its imperative that we really employ a lot of line speed and shut down their space before they get any momentum.
The choice of tackle has to be first man low and second man high, as they like to offload in traffic. Ireland like to utilize the 'choke tackle' and excel at it, but it is important that they are smart with the times they employ it as against big teams. It can result in losing a lot of territory and also, it is hard to get line speed off a retreating maul.
So, how will this one go?
Wales are under huge pressure but they are a better side than their recent record of seven straight defeats suggests. They are certainly missing Warren Gatland’s influence and if they lose their first game at home, it's hard to see them recovering.
For Ireland it’s vital that we get momentum and with France and England at home this could be another great year for us.
Ireland by four.
The other matches
In Rome, I expect a French team who were very impressive in November and who have the strongest 30-man squad get a win although it might not be a runaway.
When you see that Phillipe Saint-Andre can keep Morgan Parra on the bench it shows how strong their squad is. I think Wesley Fofana is something special and reckon he will be the player of the tournament.
It would be a huge shock if England were to lose to the Scots, who are now coached by Scott Johnson. The record of the Scottish team and its regions recently points to another low placed finish and maybe even a wooden spoon.
There will be full live coverage of Wales v Ireland and England v Scotland on Saturday 2 February from 12.30pm and Italy v France on Sunday 3 February on RTÉ Two. (Live streaming Ireland only). Ireland v Wales is also live from 1.00pm on Saturday Sport on RTÉ Radio 1. (Live streaming Worldwide).