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Chris Henry: Irish stars will be itching to get back and prove their point

Grand feeling: Alun Wyn Jones lifts the Six Nations trophy after completing the clean sweep against Ireland
Grand feeling: Alun Wyn Jones lifts the Six Nations trophy after completing the clean sweep against Ireland
Chris Henry

By Chris Henry

While it wasn't a great Six Nations for most teams, one thing that's now for sure is that Wales have to be seen as World Cup contenders.

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Worthy Grand Slam winners despite a few shakier moments against the bottom three sides, they were fantastic in thumping Ireland on Saturday, a signature performance to finish off the Championship.

A team of competitors, they're summed up by their captain Alun Wyn Jones. Doing the match for radio, when he went down early on I was convinced his game was over.

A bit of strapping and he wasn't just ready to go on but ready to excel, still going strong in the 80th minute of the game.

For Ireland, the game and the Championship were an anti-climax. Having come in with such high hopes, and rightly so after all they achieved in 2018, they were suffocated by two sides playing better rugby in England and Wales.

If coaches could make use of a time machine I'm sure there's a number of things Ireland would want to do differently - keeping the roof open was obviously a gamble that backfired - while a six-day turnaround and Welsh eyes being on the Slam certainly made things tougher before the contest had even kicked off.

Taking all that into consideration, as well as the strength of the Welsh performance, this was not an Irish side bearing any resemblance to what we saw last year.

International rugby is an exacting business at the best of times, but when your key players are off form at the same time, it makes things very tough and that's what we've seen.

Scotland, France and Italy have all been poor throughout - bar that last 40 minutes of the Championship for the former - so it's not a stretch to say this is as long a run of off-colour performances as we've seen since Joe Schmidt took charge and kick-started an historic period of success.

But to see a 'Joe Out' brigade emerge on social media is frankly ludicrous. This is one of the best coaches in the world, the best that Ireland have ever had.

The question I'd ask those saying he should be relieved of his duties before the squad head to Japan is this... just who would you rather have?

I remember how hurt he was by our quarter-final exit in the last World Cup and the last few weeks will have had a similar effect on him. But he's such a forensic analyst that he'll go away over the next few weeks and months and produce an honest and thorough examination of what's gone wrong.

The concern that Ireland have peaked too soon in the World Cup cycle is natural, but as a player I never once crossed the white line thinking about a game I played in six months ago. No player does. It's a new season and there will be plenty of hard work put in to make sure that the last five games are nothing more than a distant memory.

If you need any further proof, look back four years ago. We'd won the previous two Six Nations titles but that obviously didn't count for a single thing against Argentina in the Millennium Stadium on that horrible afternoon.

With Guinness PRO14 and Champions Cup medals to be won, there's so much rugby to be played between now and taking on the Scots in the first game of the pool that, if Ireland do falter out in Japan, it'll not be because of the dents their collective confidence has endured over the past seven weeks.

For the Irish players, European quarter-finals are a chance to immediately press the reset button. The standard of European knockout rugby isn't much off the Test arena and to have all four provinces in action next weekend is exactly what's needed, an opportunity to draw a line in the sand and purge the Six Nations from the system.

The Irish pack has been bested in a big way in their two defeats but that's rarely the case for Leinster and Munster.

Even after the mentally draining few weeks they've had, taking criticism that will be a bit alien to them, I'd wager Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton can't wait to pull on their red and blue jerseys and get playing with some front foot ball again.

Don't be surprised to see a good number of those who have looked far below their best of late playing more like themselves sooner rather than later.

Ulster's John Cooney will be back in Ireland colours in the Six Nations after being called up to the national squad

Cooney's versatility a major asset in fight for World Cup spot

International rugby is such a squad game now that there are usually two full sides in camp at any given time, but the demands that a 31-man limit at the tournament place on you put you in the unusual position of having to run training sessions with coaches as fill-ins.

Thirty-one players really isn't a great deal and with the Six Nations gone there'll be a number of players thinking nervously about what their chances are. With that size of squad, versatility is your best friend.

John Cooney, for example, is at a real advantage given his ability to play scrum-half and out-half. We may not ever need to see him at 10 during a game but just being able to run the lines at training is a real asset too...there might come a time when bodies are so thin on the ground that it's him or the kitman.

His would seem to be a sensible selection but it does concern me that I'm still not sure we know for sure which half-backs will be making the trip.

Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton are obviously in the untouchables group but can we say with any confidence who the back-ups are if either gets injured?

I'll always be convinced we could have won that quarter-final with Argentina in 2015 with a few more of our big players fit.

The identity of the third hooker is no clearer either with Rob Herring and Niall Scannell both vying for spots behind Rory Best and, I'd assume, Sean Cronin.

I certainly don't envy the coaches in making the call on my old position of the back-row either. Peter O'Mahony, Dan Leavy and CJ Stander are certainties. In the past, I'd have put Sean O'Brien in there, but the way it's gone for him he's probably in the group with Jack Conan, Jordi Murphy, Josh van der Flier and Rhys Ruddock.

Only two of that pool will make the initial trip, so good players will be left behind.

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