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Will Irish eyes be smiling?
Peter Martin
February 6, 2009
France wing Vincent Clerc celebrates with team mate Cedric Heymans, Ireland v France, Six Nations Championship, Croke Park, Dublin, Ireland, February 11, 2007
France broke Irish hearts with a last-gasp success at Croke Park in 2007 © Getty Images
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On paper, Ireland have as good a team as any of the Six Nations contenders but as we have seen, particularly in the last two Championships, things do not always go to plan for the men in green.

So can Declan Kidney, the man who famously guided Munster to their two Heineken Cup triumphs, add those few missing ingredients and net the Irish their first title since 1985?

There are plenty of other questions to pose but that is the one all Ireland fans want answered. Yes, the Triple Crowns of 2004, 2006 and 2007 brought on celebrations but the novelty of the new-fangled trophy soon wore off and with Championship success under Eddie O'Sullivan frustratingly only a win away - and just seconds in the case of 2007 - the reasons to be optimistic on the eve of the Six Nations are getting less and less each year.

Ireland's so-called 'golden generation' have failed to deliver on their potential. They SHOULD be winning championships. Time is running out, with the likes of Brian O'Driscoll and Ronan O'Gara the wrong side of 30 and a number of forwards, including ever-present tighthead John Hayes, just a season or two away from retirement.

When you note that over the nine years of Six Nations rugby, the Irish are ranked second in the 'wins for' table, that lack of a championship trophy in the IRFU cabinet is all the more galling.

So can there be a different scenario this year? On the plus side, Leinster and Munster have both qualified the Heineken Cup quarter-finals, there plenty of Lions contenders in the squad and with two wins out of three in November, Kidney has the makings of a settled side.

Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Paddy Wallace and Tomas O'Leary are playing some of the best rugby of their careers at the moment. And when reigning champions Munster thundered through to the last-eight in Europe, Paul O'Connell and David Wallace rubberstamped their reputations as two of the northern Hemisphere's most influential forwards.

The resurgence of Ulster, who have posted impressive wins over Munster and Harlequins, has also added to the competition for places in the Irish squad and the elevation of the Australian-born Tom Court into the matchday 22 to face France comes off the back of that.

Ireland forwards coach Gert Smal rates Court as the 'best utility prop in the country' and the Irish set-up definitely needs an injection of quality props, given that Hayes and Marcus Horan cannot go on forever.

Tony Buckley, built in the mould of Hayes, has not made the international breakthrough that was perhaps expected from a man of his size and the front row is an area that Ireland look fragile in if they get a bad run with injuries.

Behind that, the second row partnership of O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan is the envy of many countries and with Ulster's Stephen Ferris beginning to look at home at blindside, where the retired Simon Easterby operated for so long, and Jamie Heaslip and Denis Leamy pushing each other for the number 8 slot, the Irish back row has a very athletic look to it.

Steering the ship of course will be the perennial Six Nations top scorer, Ronan O'Gara. If he can transfer his form with Munster in recent games into the Test arena, Ireland will be in business.

 
"Of course one defeat would not put pay to their championship hopes but if they are to challenge, you get the sense that it has to be right from weekend one."
 

However, the last time O'Gara donned an Ireland jersey - against Argentina in November - he looked a pale shadow of himself. Riled by the Pumas and taking poor options, the Corkman has looked rattled in recent internationals and obviously not as comfortable in green as he is in red.

Confidence abounds in the Munster side, when they build up a head of steam. Ireland, for all their efforts during the November Tests, never really looked convincing and whatever chances they created - save for a late Tommy Bowe try against Argentina - were not converted. Sure, they are still getting used to new calls and dealing with new coaches but one try in 160 minutes of rugby against New Zealand and Argentina is not good enough at this level.

Kidney is clearly hoping that the good times for the provinces can translate into a successful tournament for Ireland. He has picked an all-Munster front five for the France game as well as the two Munster half-backs and Leinster's in-form players - Kearney, O'Driscoll, Luke Fitzgerald and Heaslip - are sprinkled throughout the rest of the side.

But we have seen before that that inter-provincial jigsaw does not always click together. Words like 'potential', 'ability', 'aspire' and 'confidence' buzzed around the Irish camp on media day this week. The players know it is about time they delivered on this potential and having France first time out could be key.

Momentum has been a huge factor in Wales securing two Grand Slams in recent seasons and if Ireland are to follow in their Celtic cousins' footsteps, they really need to set out their stall this weekend at Croke Park and gain their win over the French since 2003.

Of course one defeat would not put pay to their championship hopes but if they are to challenge, you get the sense that it has to be right from weekend one. Should Kidney's men follow up on their target of winning their home games against France and England, then it is likely that Italy and Scotland can be downed on the road.

The Italians are improving year-on-year and the Scots are historically tough opponents for the Irish at Murrayfield, but you would fancy Ireland, with their confidence suitably boosted and key players fit, to nail two more wins there. If Ireland can maintain that winning trend over the first four weeks, Wales, the pre-tournament favourites in O'Driscoll's eyes, would be the team left standing between the Irish and a prized Grand Slam.

Sure, that prediction has a touch of the Benjamin Button script about it, especially given that Ireland are now ranked eighth in the world and have lost more of their recent Tests than they have won. Yet, the Six Nations is a strange animal and with the weather we have been getting, Ireland's Celtic Tigers may just end up playing like snow leopards and vanishing from the title race before it gets going.

Expectations are low and realistically, most Irish fans would settle for a win over either France or England and defeats of Italy and Scotland. Anything better and the recession pigs will truly be flying.

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