Belfast Telegraph

Monday 24 November 2014

Tyrone Howe: O'Sullivan gets his shot at redemption

As a youngster I can remember getting up onto a horse for the first time. Clearly, rating myself as equestrianism's answer to Evel Knievel, I sought out the nearest jump and ended up going straight over the horse's head as it refused at the first.

You know what they say about getting straight back up again - forget it, the horse had sent out a clear warning and I didn't give it a second chance to finish me off.

As the runners and riders get ready for this year's Six Nations Championship, the men in green have no such choice - it's straight back into the saddle and I suspect that plenty of players need this tournament more than any other in order to salvage their reputations on the international rugby stage.

2007 promised so much and ultimately delivered so little.

A Six Nations championship, which should have been a Grand Slam, albeit with unconvincing victories against Wales and Scotland and, of course, the let-down, the no-show, the anti-climax that was the Rugby World Cup.

To varying degrees, there have been changes in players, coaching staff and management in the other competing international set-ups, with France, Italy and Wales most prominent and it is nothing short of staggering that virtually nothing has changed in Irish rugby.

As a result, while this tournament is about development and redevelopment for other nations, it is a shot at redemption for Irish rugby and, in particular, Eddie O'Sullivan.

The performances and results in the next six weeks will hang like the Sword of Damocles over Ireland's coach, like an imminent and ever present peril.

He has never wavered in his commitment and loyalty to the same group of players and they owe him big time, but then again, we were saying the same five months ago.

As it has been for such a long time now, Munster have been leading by example with tremendously gutsy performances in the Heineken Cup, thereby allowing their international contingent a way to rebuild their confidence.

Doubts and demons still seem to still linger in Leinster minds, while Ulster's "annus horribilis" accounts for the lack of players involved in the 22.

Of these, Rory Best, I believe, is the one who is the most crucial in Eddie O'Sullivan's plans.

For me, the outstanding new kid on the block since the World Cup has been Leinster hooker Bernard Jackman and he deservedly takes his place in the squad.

However, Best's performances in a spluttering Ulster team have been consistently of the highest standard.

Against Gloucester, in Ulster's first real performance of the season, his darts were 100% and together with his scrummaging power and contribution around the pitch, he has made himself indispensable to Ireland's chances.

He may lack the bald pate and more open style of play that make Jackman stand out a la Keith Wood, but Rory, still with a full(ish) head of hair, is enormously effective in the set piece, and the importance of this at international level cannot be overstated.

The 2008 Six Nations has the potential to be one of the most open championships for a long time, while the match between Ireland and Wales surely has the greatest sub-plot.

Warren Gatland's rather ignominious exit from Irish rugby six years ago means that he will relish the opportunity to get one over his former second in command.

Ireland are fortunate to have Italy up first. A tough, abrasive match lies ahead, but one that should allow the team to at least go some way to repairing its fragile confidence.

The Grand Slam should prove to be beyond the reach of any team, and while it would be easy to predict that the winners will come from either England or France, I'll stick my neck out for a surprise Six Nations run from Wales.

A new coach to impress, confidence from two sides, Cardiff and the Ospreys, in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals and the inspired decision by Gatland to lure openside flanker, Martyn Williams out of retirement may breathe enough fire into the Welsh dragons to conjure up the magic to actually win the tournament.

If they can beat England at Twickenham this Saturday, the Welsh may be very hard to stop. As for Ireland, saddle up, it could be another rocky ride.

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