Tuesday, February 02, 2010

2010 Six Nations Preview

Declan Kidney will name his team for the first game of the Six Nations against Italy in Croke Park later today. Ireland start the competition as more or less joint favorites with France to retain the title, although at longer odds to retain the Slam. No matter; it is hard to remember a time when the Irish team sat so high in rugby’s firmament.

While a lot of the focus on Declan Kidney’s selection dilemmas is on Sexton v O’Gara, you couldn’t call it a problem, as such. Kidney’s real problems are at nine and in the front row. It shouldn’t be a problem against Italy, but down the line it could be tricky.

But who better to perform the judgement of Solomon than Declan Kidney, after his resurrection of Ireland after the disasters of the 2007 World Cup and its 2008 hangover, when some of the greatest minds in rugby analysis were writing Ireland off? Heady times indeed for Irish rugby.

If the Championship is to be between Ireland and France, the Championship will be decided early, as Ireland travel to Paris on St Valentine’s weekend, twelve days from now. Before that, however, both teams open with potential banana skins; the notoriously homesick French must go to Murrayfield on Sunday, where the Scots beat Australia in the autumn, Scotland’s best international result since costing Ireland the Championship in 2001, probably. The day before, the Irish must beware of complacency against the normally hapless Italians, who are twenty point underdogs in the game.

The standard of Italian rugby looked better than it was when Italy joined the Five Nations ten years ago, and this was because they had Diego Dominguez, an Argentinean, at stand-off half, the single most important position on the pitch.

The ten, like His Holiness the Pope, has the power to loose and to bind. The ten conducts the orchestra and if he’s tone deaf with no sense of timing the team is at nothing. Dominguez presence made the Italians look better able to compete than they were; since he retired, Italy have struggled to be competitive.

The Italians seem set to try the hired gun approach at ten this year with a former Australian rugby league player, Craig Gower, at ten. An Spailpín does not expect this to be a success.

Mr Gower seems to have character issues, and his character will get a thorough examination on Saturday on Jones’ Road. If Ireland can retain focus, they should win pulling up, and then look fair for Paris in the springtime.

What sort of France they’ll face will be determined by how the French do at Murrayfield. If they go down, you may expect big changes in the team and the volatility that brings. If France win, however, the combination of l’esprit du clocher, confidence and a howling need for revenge after last yeaer should make for a challenging afternoon for the Irish.

Not least upfront. The Irish pack was pushed around by Australia, who are not known for their scrummaging, and continued weakness in the tight will be bad, bad news against a French eight who were so fearsome in the Autumn internationals.

That said, the French have problems at out-half too, where Lionel Beauxis seems out of favour. An Spailpín thought the next ten years where the stumpy Beauxis’ to command, but this not how Marc Lievremont sees it. Oh well. That’s his problem.

Paris will certainly not hold the same fear for Ireland as it traditionally has. Now, it will be hell on Earth, of course, but that doesn’t mean the Irish can’t win there. The young Brian O’Driscoll inspired a famous win in Paris ten years ago, and fine wines are only trotting after O’Driscoll in their response to the aging process.

The biggest outside challenger to France and Ireland will be the winner of this weekend’s game between England and Wales at Twickenham. The Welsh are terribly weakened by the absence of Mike Phillips, as fine a nine as there is in the game, but An Spailpín has been wondering lately if Stephen Jones is the most under-rated ten in the world.

Steven Jones has started all the tests at ten in two consecutive Lions tours. The last man to do that was Jones’ countryman Phil Bennett, in 1974 and 1977. That’s pretty rarefied company. An Spailpín will be backing the underdog Welsh at Twickers on Saturday.

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