Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Six Nations not whetting appetite

The Six Nations Championship is never quite the same feast following a Rugby World Cup. In 2004, England were still in party mood following their Sydney triumph when Ireland tucked in at Twickenham, starting a winning streak that has yet to come to an end.

A third place finish was the best the world champions could manage.

Four years on and while the Six Nations no longer has the Webb Ellis trophy among its number, there is still a certain sense of after the Lord Mayor's Show as we get ready for the big kick-off next weekend.

While some nations are building towards a new future - there are three new coaches in place this season with Warren Gatland installed at Wales, Nick Mallet at Italy and Marc Lievremont at France, for the rest, and Ireland in particular, there is little to whet the appetite.

Last season's buzz, which centred around the historic move to Croke Park for the games against France and England, has long since evaporated into the air following Ireland's flop at the World Cup in France.

A pool stage exit would have been embarrassing enough for most tier one nations to install a new coach but Ireland, having offered Eddie O'Sullivan a four-year deal before a ball was kicked, have stuck by their man.

And O'Sullivan, having named a few new faces in his 32-man squad, is unlikely to take any risks when he announces his squad today for the visit of Italy to Croke Park on February 2.

If that is to be the case, it was hugely encouraging to see Munster perform so admirably in their victory over Wasps last Saturday.

Getting out of that pool of death was a massive achievement and Declan Kidney's side deserved more than an away trip to Gloucester.

Having seen Ulster give the cherry and whites an almighty scare last Sunday, Munster will have taken note on the areas to exploit at Kingsholm and I can't see anything other than another last four place for Kidney's men.

Supporters were left to wonder why the same players could not fire in the same way for Ireland and Kidney's name keeps coming to the fore.

If Ireland are looking to appoint a backs coach and a motivator, how can they look past Kidney, whose record is such that in any other era he would have been promoted to the top job long before now.

That he didn't enjoy a warm relationship with O'Sullivan when the two were paired together in 2002 for two seasons should not matter.

Best men for the job and all that.

If Ireland supporters can take heart that the core of the Munster pack, even without Paul O'Connell, is firing again and Peter Stringer and Ronan O'Gara look back to their best, then the return to form of Tommy Bowe is also likely to have a direct impact.

Bowe was devastated by his omission from the World Cup panel but instead of throwing his head up, like any good professional he instead upped his game, working hard on the weaker aspects of his game.

His performance against Gloucester only improved with a second viewing, both in defending against Lesley Vainikolo and in finishing off two tries and helping to create a third for Andrew Trimble.

Bowe is blessed with size, pace and power and now has a burning focus to take him to the next level. O'Sullivan must banish any memories he has of Bowe's performance in Paris in 2006 - the Monaghan man's last Six Nations appearance for Ireland - and slot him straight back into the starting XV to face Italy.

Shane Horgan's injury has deprived him of any rugby over the last month and O'Sullivan can no longer afford to pick on reputation rather than form as he knows that one slip up at home this season will bring the knives out again and Bowe's form is outstanding.

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