Six Nations 2014: Ireland must be consistent to have a shot at title
Six Nations 2014: Oisin Gregorian takes a look at Ireland's chances of winning the championship
Four campaigns have now passed since the Grand Slam of 2009. In the four campaigns since, there have been few highlights to pluck from the pool.
For the class of 2009, their victory confirmed a long-known potential, aided by an influx of confidence brought on by the recent appointment of Declan Kidney. Unfortunately, with key players retiring soon after, Kidney failed to replicate his debut campaign, and was sacked by the IRFU in April last year after 2013’s dismal championship.
His replacement Joe Schmidt is under no illusions at the task facing both him and his backroom staff with just under 20 months to go until the World Cup in 2015.
For Schmidt, a campaign akin to last season would be disastrous, with the Kiwi setting a target of second or higher to build upon with the World Cup in mind. Ireland’s tag of nearly men follows Schmidt, with only one championship to show in over 30 years coupled with a string of runners up spots, five alone in the last decade.
In his 14th and final Six Nations, all eyes will arguably on one of the sport’s greats, Brian O’Driscoll, who is perhaps more determined than most to finish on a high and redeem the 2013 campaign.
Blessed with a Six Nations highlight reel that could create a double DVD, O’Driscoll’s form for Leinster has been indifferent as his body winds down towards retirement. Regardless, O’Driscoll will remain one of the first names on any Schmidt team sheet and with his big game reputation; he will aim to go out with a fitting flourish.
Key to any success will be injury management.
Partly to blame for last season’s fifth place was an accumulation of injuries that hit a record high of 14 as the tournament progressed, obliterating any previous injury lists suffered.
For Schmidt to enjoy any level of competitiveness throughout the tournament, he will need Cian Healy, Paul O’Connell, Jamie Heaslip, O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Rob Kearney to avoid the treatment table – and the head coach will only hope for as little bruising as possible over the next six weeks.
Even if key players remain fit, the task of winning a second crown in five years remains one of the toughest in years with a host of opponents beginning to blossom as the World Cup approaches. Wales at home and England and France away are the key games.
Beat Wales at home and momentum could be gained in an attempt to finally win in both London and Paris for the first time since 1972. Lose and the final three games could be an arduous process.
Unlike France and England, who both play each other and will leave one top competitor unable to win a Grand Slam after only 80 minutes, Ireland’s opening weekend draw couldn’t have been more favourable. At home to a Scotland team who are still in a form of limbo, a win and marker-laying is expected with Wales coming to town six days later.
Make a statement on Sunday, and Wales will come to the Aviva against a team arguably brimming with confidence. Here it will be test of Ireland’s consistency, which has so many times been the team’s downfall in recent campaigns. With five matches packed over six weeks, the challenge both mentally and physically has become Ireland’s enemy.
Given the context and the relative lack of time Schmidt has had to mould his plan with the squad since taking over, a strong campaign will be the sole objective. Anything else (Triple Crown, Championship, Grand Slam etc.) would be an exceptional bonus.
In the video above, Matt Dawson returns to join Will Carling & Scott Quinnell as they catch-up on the nail-biting final rounds of the Heineken Cup, catch up with another one of Matt’s Celebrity Friends and answer your Twitter questions.