Tyrone Howe: Slay dragon and Ireland can reign
The Six Nations has once again crept up on us. With the prospect of playing Wales in Cardiff this weekend, it goes without saying that Ireland need to get off to the best possible start. Both sides have their own issues to deal with.
No matter how good the spin doctors, Wales are in the depths of despair. Injuries galore, top players in France or heading in that direction, question marks over the future of the regions, no teams qualifying for Heineken Cup knockout stages, it is hard to believe that this is the same country that won the Grand Slam last season.
Yet, over the short period of 80 minutes in the Millennium Stadium this is what makes Wales so dangerous.
They have little to lose, they are being written off, yet they are a proud rugby nation and you can be sure that they will want to surprise us all.
They are a side that, no matter how their professional club sides are doing, seem to be able to come together in the red shirt.
Ireland, too, have their issues.
The news last week about Jonathan Sexton and his departure to Racing Metro at the end of the season will have ruffled more than a few feathers down in IRFU HQ, but far more importantly could prove very unsettling for the players.
It has not been the most emphatic Heineken Cup season and with Leinster going out of Europe due to Munster’s victory, the banter will have an extra edge to it.
Banter only goes so far though before it becomes irksome.
There are plenty of Ulster’s young guns but with no Darren Cave, Luke Marshall or Andrew Trimble in the 33 man squad, there be may an element of faint annoyance at the selection preferences of Declan Kidney.
Indeed, as the coach’s reign appears to be coming to an end, how much are the players already looking beyond him?
How strong is his message coming through to the players?
Of course, all these factors may be overwhelmed by the simple desire to do well, but professional sport is a selfish pursuit and I suspect that an even greater incentive for players is the Lions tour in June.
A good Championship propels a player to the forefront of Warren Gatland’s mind.
In terms of motivation it adds a little bit more to your focus and performance. Yet, this is the situation for all the Home Nations, and more than ever I think that ‘player power’ will dominate this season’s Six Nations.
The participants will want to take the tournament by the scruff of the neck and set down a marker for not just the next six weeks, but the next few months too.
In Scotland, an interim coaching set-up means that the players will be empowered to perform more for themselves and each other.
For me, the Scottish performances may have a greater impact on the final standings than many think.
If they can remain upbeat after a likely opening defeat at Twickenham, they entertain Italy, Ireland and Wales in successive games and this presents them with opportunities for much improvement. Dean Ryan joined as forwards coach for a 12-week period — he will bring firm, disciplined organisation with a hard and savvy edge.
The key will be self-confidence and composure and not to let white-line fever get the better of them as it has done in previous seasons. They may yet surprise us.
On form, France and England are favourites. The French have the greatest potential for a strong campaign, but their fixture over in Twickenham may unseat their thrust for the trophy.
Victory over the All Blacks for Stuart Lancaster and his men ramps up the media pressure and it will be interesting to see if they can cope with the expectation and maintain a high level of consistency.
Despite the usual drama the Six Nations is about winning. Five cup finals with small margins dictating where you finish up in the table.
This is the ‘good’ year for Ireland with fixtures against England and France in Dublin.
A positive start in Cardiff sets Ireland up nicely for their crack at the former.
Two from two suddenly makes for a potentially triumphant Six Nations, but I am nervous. We have become too used to inconsistency. What will we get?
No idea, but we will know much more by St Patrick’s Day.