Tyrone Howe: There will be shocks, but not at Croke Park
Ireland, the Grand Slam champions, kick off this season’s Six Nations with high hopes of pushing on from their historic achievement almost twelve months ago.
The personnel may look very similar, but the task is that bit more difficult with away fixtures against England and France. As Munster and Leinster have already proved in this year’s Heineken Cup, defeat in the opening round does not consign you to despair and despondency. Get off to a bad start in the Six Nations though, especially if you lose at home and you are immediately under pressure and chasing the competition.
The key to Ireland’s achievement last season was the stunning opening victory against France at Croke Park.
It was intense and physical, but Ireland coped admirably and then hit the French with stunning tries from Jamie Heaslip, Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy.
It announced the start of a dream year for the Leinster number eight, it confounded allegations that BOD was a spent force and it marked D’Arcy’s return from a horrible arm injury.
As this year’s assignment is even tougher, it is a good thing that all three are in better form now than they were then.
It was the perfect start and gave the men in green both confidence and momentum and allowed them to settle into the Championship looking ahead rather than over their shoulders.
It is great to see Andrew Trimble’s form rewarded with his return to the wing position and he deserves his place.
For me, the most interesting area of selection is the fact that Declan Kidney has had to defer his decision over who is his number one outhalf. The issue will not go away for ever and in seven days, the Ireland coach will have to make the biggest of calls.
The dynamics of this year’s tournament are different for Ireland, with the start being much more straightforward and the really hard work in the middle.
If Ireland lead the Six Nations going into the final weekend, it is surely unthinkable that Scotland will come to Croke Park and spoil the party.
So, while Ireland had to hit the ground fully running last year against the French, they can ease themselves into the 2010 Championship against Italy.
This is in no way to suggest that the match will be “easy” — there is always an enormous physical challenge. Nevertheless, the Italians lack an ability to create or exploit spaces out wide to conjure up try-scoring opportunities.
It is hard not to feel a bit sorry for them. To have the best possible chance of victory you need your key players to be fit and the loss of world-class number eight, Sergio Parisse, will be sorely felt.
The word talisman is used far too readily nowadays — for Italy, outhalf Diego Dominguez used to be that figure and now the mantle is carried by Parisse. A structured, disciplined Irish defence should snuff out anything that the Italian attack can produce. Italy have to be selective in their goals and their ambitions will revolve around their home matches against England and the potential wooden spooner against Scotland.
The crucial importance of winning your first match, particularly if it is at home, has serious implications for Scotland and even more so, England, such is the level of media interest and expectation on the other side of the Irish Sea.
Should Scotland lose to France, it will be an uphill battle and they will do well to avoid the bottom two positions. However, the impact of an England loss to Wales could be far more dramatic as the knives might just start to sharpen.
A victory, however, would galvanise England’s campaign and make them dark horses for the title. A much more ambitious selection is largely down to players returning from injury, but hopefully this provides the catalyst for some attacking rugby. Forget the pressure of defending a Grand Slam, if ever a team was under pressure to produce a performance, it is England.
My prediction is that there will be no outright Grand Slam this year. In fact, there could potentially be a three way tie with Ireland, France and Wales all vying for honours. England still have a bit to go, with Scotland and Italy destined to bring up the rear.
This, I believe, reflects the form that the respective teams bring into the competition. As the history of the Six Nations so often has proved, however, form sometimes counts for very little.
There is bound to be a massive shock along the way, but I don’t expect it this Saturday at Croke Park.