Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

Niall Crozier: Confident Ireland can get off to good Six Nations start

The time for talking is over; now it’s about how the words translate in a practical, tangible manner. Real world, how will this all pan out?.

I’m not talking about Stormont or Hillsborough Castle. This is about Ireland’s defence of the Grand Slam they won so dramatically last season.

The opening day’s fixtures have been kind to the champions. Given the choice, any of the other five nations would opt to host the Italians in the belief that gives them the best chance of launching the series on a winning note.

Coach Declan Kidney and his Ireland players are far too diplomatic and media-savvy to say otherwise, of course, but they expect to win tomorrow. Truth be told, that’s probably the Italians’ expectation, too.

Let’s not feign modesty; the entire rugby world would be stunned by any other outcome.

Why so confident?

Basically it comes down to the quality of the Irish side, the confidence that has grown as a result of winning habitually, the sheer volume of history and probability weighing in their favour and the fact that they are at home.

We know Italy’s front three will be hard. They always are. But no more so than Messrs Healy, Flannery and Hayes.

And while the loss on Thursday of Munster and Lions lock, Donncha O’Callaghan, was not in the plans, Leo Cullen — with 20 caps — isn’t exactly a rookie replacement. He is the same height as the man for whom he will be deputising, he actually weights a couple of pounds more and having led Leinster to last season’s Heineken Cup he has drunk from a very deep well in terms of experience.

In that he will be in tandem with Paul O’Connell, a man tempered in the heat of many a battle at the highest level, I have no hesitation in saying that Cullen will not be found wanting.

Since the start of his remarkable tenure, Kidney has stressed the importance of a squad, the need for strength in depth and the knowledge that if one player drops out there is another of comparable calibre ready to step into the gap.

As well as being physically hard, Ireland now are technically and tactically better than at any time. That is why they will beat the Italians and, by doing so, register their first winning start to a new decade since the 1880s. Remarkable, that.

Much has changed in the past 130 years. Professional era or nay, however, certain tenets remain, the most fundamental of those being that if you have very good forwards and, behind them, very good backs, you have a very good chance of winning.

Because while you can tweak rules and tinker with the superfluous, the bottom line remains that a side winning possession, dominating territory and translating that into points cannot be beaten.

This Irish pack will win possession and claim territory. And when they do, Ireland, with backs of the pace, power and panache of Brian O’Driscoll — the brightest jewel in the crown of world football right now — Gordon D’Arcy, Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble and Rob Kearney, will score points.

They will have to work and work very hard up front. Be in no doubt about that. They will be required to show discipline and patience, too, because Italy will be keen to slow things down and frustrate the hosts in their attempts to move quick ball.

But the vastly experienced and hugely gifted Ireland team will cope with that and, as a result, head for Paris next week buoyed up by a positive start to the defence of their title.

February 13 could well be the champions’ ultimate test, though while I am wholly convinced that Ireland will take to the Stade de France pitch still sitting atop the Six Nations ladder, I am less certain about where exactly their hosts may be, either in their place in the table or in their own heads.

I say that because a Scottish win at Murrayfield on Sunday is a distinct possibility and if that were to materialise in tandem with an Irish triumph over Italy, the French would find themselves playing catch-up from the outset.

With everyone wondering and now waiting to see how under-pressure Martin Johnston’s England fare, the Welsh posing a threat once again and Scotland on the march, it promises to be an intriguing series.

The possibilities are numerous.

But the possibility of Italy beating Ireland?

No; there won’t be any upset at Croke Park. The champions to hit the ground running.