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Ireland Rugby want joy of Six: Triple Crown isn't enough anymore

By Niall Crozier

Two down, three to go and Ireland are sitting pretty. Top of the Six Nations table with a Triple Crown the prize if they beat England at Twickenham 10 days hence, Scotland and Wales having been put to the sword. So far, so good.

Not so very long ago, Irish players and their supporters would have regarded a Triple Crown season as being one to savour and celebrate.

But then came the advent of professionalism and the expansion of the Five Nations Championship to embrace a sixth country, Italy. Little by little, the Triple Crown lost its sheen.

Nothing did more to rob it of its lustre than Ireland's success in winning it three times in four seasons under Eddie O'Sullivan.

His side beat England, Scotland and Wales in 2004, 2006 and 2007. But in the end, it counted for nothing. Why? Because in each of those years, Ireland – despite having seen off each of their neighbours – finished second to France in the championship itself.

While beating the English, the Scots and the Welsh was thoroughly enjoyable, in the end it mattered little. Indeed, it served only to frustrate and ultimately infuriate rather than delight and satisfy.

O'Sullivan and Ireland became victims of having raised the bar only then to find that they could not clear it. The 2007 Triple Crown winners and championship runners-up went on to have what was, from an Irish viewpoint, an unmitigated disaster of a World Cup that autumn – failing to emerge from their pool after winning two out of four games.

As a result, O'Sullivan is remembered as the coach who was to Irish rugby what Moses was to the Children of Israel – the man who took them to the edge of the promised land but never got to lead them into it.

Thus those of you who know your Old Testament and your Irish rugby will recognise the similarity between Joshua and Declan Kidney, both of whom completed a journey begun but not quite finished by another.

It was Joshua, not Moses, who led the Israelites into Canaan; it was Kidney, not O'Sullivan, who not only won a championship but delivered in its most perfect form, a Grand Slam – Ireland's first in 61 years and only their second ever.

But that was five years ago and the interim Ireland have finished second, third, third and fifth. Not good enough.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man, the man in this instance being Josef Schmidt.

I like the fact that Irish rugby's new Messianic leader, whilst composed and confident, is neither cocky nor conceited. I like the mood he has engendered in the current camp.

And I really like the fact that prior to a ball being kicked in this season's Six Nations, Brian O'Driscoll said that winning another Triple Crown was of no interest to him if it did not lead to the 2014 title.

In reality, that ought not to have surprised anyone, because since making his Six Nations debut in 2000, O'Driscoll has played in just one championship-winning side. Now that is paltry reward for the man who has scored more tries than any player in the extended competition's 15-year history.

On Friday, February 21, Wales host France in Cardiff; the following afternoon, England entertain Ireland. Two away wins would eliminate the Welsh and the English from the race to be champions, and would mean all roads leading to Paris on March 15.

I mean no disrespect to Italy or Scotland who, on March 8, will provide the round four opposition for Ireland and France in Dublin and Edinburgh respectively.

But I genuinely cannot see the Italians winning at the Aviva Stadium. And unless something verging on the miraculous happens at Murrayfield, there has been nothing to date to suggest that French might have major problems, particularly if they travel to Edinburgh having accounted for England, Italy and Wales en route.

Since the inception of the Six Nations in 2000, Scotland have beaten France once in Edinburgh – and that was eight years ago. I rest my case.

But first things first; neither England nor Wales are out of the running for the championship at this stage and if they were to beat Ireland and France next time out, that would leave all four of those countries with a played three, won two record.

Now that wouldn't half put the cat among the pigeons, particularly with England hosting Wales on March 9 and France at home to Ireland six days later. Yes, this really is shaping up to be quite a Six Nations.

Belfast Telegraph

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