Who’s their coach?
JOE SCHMIDT TOOK over from Declan Kidney, via a winning Les Kiss cameo, late last summer. He held his first squad get-together in August but only got players in for hit-outs in October. The New Zealander was a former assistant to Vern Cotter at Clermont Auvergne and arrived at Leinster in 2010. In his three seasons with the province, Schmidt led Leinster to two Heineken Cups, a Pro12 title and an Amlin Cup win.
He has signed on with Ireland on a three-year deal that will take him up to the 2016 Six Nations. In the middle of all that will be the World Cup, where Schmidt is targeting a semi final spot and hoping to take some scalps from there.
Are Schmidt’s lads in any sort of form?
Schmidt’s Ireland are only three games old and already we have witnessed the consistency problems that dogged the final two years of Kidney’s reign. Samoa asked some questions of Ireland, who chose to hoof away possession, in the first half before Sean O’Brien made a winning impact and Dave Kearney chipped in with two tries.
Eoin Reddan sets up Dave Kearney’s second try against Samoa. INPHO/Dan Sheridan
The following weekend against Australia was a horror show as the visitors ripped Ireland to shreds in broken play. The Aussie pack gobbled up Mike Ross & co. and the Irish backline looked toothless. When captain Paul O’Connell told us his team could beat New Zealand, we called it wishful thinking. It so nearly proved the case as Ireland put in their best performance in 17 months [Christchurch - Second Test] before falling to a cruel try in stoppage time.
When it comes to player’s form, several big-hitters are hitting their straps as three Irish provinces made it to the Heineken Cup quarter finals.
Can they sort out their consistency issues?
Home starts against Scotland and Wales are certainly the best remedy for a winning start. Two from two would silence the consistency doubts after that close call against the All Blacks. Ireland have an extremely good chance of doing that before the big away games come into view.
England at Twickenham will be the make-or-break game and it may benefit Ireland if Stuart Lancaster’s men are to fall at Stade France and/or Murrayfield in their opening fixtures. As Wales proved last year, November form means nothing if you can get a winning run together in the Six Nations.
Any missing men?
A few key players. The big loss for Ireland is that of flanker Sean O’Brien. The Tullow Tank carried on his Lions form whenever he appeared for Leinster and Ireland but a dislocated shoulder in late December needed corrective surgery and Ireland’s best ball-carrier will not return until April.
In-form winger Keith Earls is also out of the tournament after damaging ligaments in Munster’s Heineken Cup win over Edinburgh. Donnacha Ryan and Tommy Bowe will hope to be included in later squads but will need to prove their fitness first and will miss the Scotland game. He has been out of action for 15 months at this stage but blindside Stephen Ferris remains a player sorely missed by Ireland.
So, there are weaknesses
Australia gave an interesting glimpse into weaknesses in the Irish defensive game when a side matches their high-tempo approach. Ireland missed 15 tackles and fell off several others as they kicked aimless ball and allowed dangerous runners Nic Cummins and Israel Foalu to take cuts off them. The Aussies managed 12 offloads too as Irish defenders were drawn in, leaving the wings exposed.
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The major weakness in last year’s Six Nations — Ireland finished fifth — was the over-reliance on Sean O’Brien for ball carries and attacking bursts. Jamie Heaslip will now be asked to take up the running but in Peter O’Mahony he has an ever-evolving threat with ball-in-hand. Cian Healy is just back from injury but will also look to step-up while Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney are in form. Luke Marshall is often used as Ulster’s ball-carrying Trojan and may be tasked with a similar role in green.
Have they got a key man?
As much as the forwards will look to O’Connell, Healy and Heaslip, Jonathan Sexton is the key to Ireland’s success. Schmidt will be hoping that his out-half will return from France with fitness to go with his current form. Sexton plays high up on the attacking line and the Irish attack looks miles more potent when he is calling the shots.
Jonny Sexton calls a backline play against New Zealand. INPHO/James Crombie
Who’ll be kicking at goal?
Sexton will have the kicking duties and must expel the demons of his last kick at the sticks in the Aviva Stadium. His penalty, with six minutes on the clock, could have buried New Zealand but it squeaked right and wide. The Racing Métro man is made of stern stuff, however, and will see this as the perfect campaign to claim the silverware that looks unlikely, at club level, for the first time in four seasons.
Possible starting XV:
R Kearney: D Kearney, B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best, M Ross; D Toner, P O’Connell (c); P O’Mahony, C Henry, J Heaslip.