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Dublin: 10°C Wednesday 21 April 2021

5 big questions facing Ireland before the Six Nations kick-off

Is it just us, or is everyone feeling the pressure?

WE’RE NOW JUST days away from the beginning of the 2015 Six Nations. Ireland are champions, traditional big-hitting rivals France and England have to come to Dublin and it’s a World Cup year: little wonder that the anticipation and nerves are swelling by the day.

The sooner the tournament gets started the better, then we’ll have answers and we’ll probably be left wondering why we ever doubted Joe in the first place.

1. Starter for 10?

With Jonathan Sexton not returning from his concussion layoff until immediately after Ireland’s curtain-raiser in Rome and Paddy Jackson out of the tournament with an elbow injury, there is a real chance for an out-half to stake a claim in World Cup year.

Ian Keatley and Tommy Bowe Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

However, Ian Madigan’s performance on Friday night – albeit behind a back-tracking pack – did not look like that of a man who was ready to grab the Six Nations by the scruff of the neck.

Last week kicking coach Richie Murphy ‘we know where Ian Keatley is’ in relation to how he operates at number 10 and that consistency may well see the Munster man parachuted in for an overdue Six Nations start. It would seem a sensible call, yet also a decision with a tinge of panic to it as it appeared Madigan was given the Wolfhounds outing to help get his feet under the table for the main course ahead.

As things stand, Madigan’s running style and versatility would seem a better weapon to unleash on a tiring Azzuri defence. Which, we hope, will how things unfold after Keatley guides Ireland through the rough early stages like only a man playing regularly at out-half can.

2. Positional sense

On the other hand, should Schmidt choose to stick by the Leinster tyro in Rome, then Ireland will have a back-line full of players operating outside of their regular position.

Joe Schmidt talks to Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw, Jonathan Sexton and Rob Kearney Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Of course, a rugby back-line can be a fairly fluid place but if Schmidt were also to prefer Luke Fitzgerald on the left wing to Simon Zebo then only Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe and Conor Murray would be in familiar positions that they play week-in week-out for their province.

We say this days before the first team-sheet of the tournament comes in, but a back-line including Jared Payne (fullback in the centre), Robbie Henshaw (13 at 12), Fitzgerald (13 on the wing) and Madigan (utility back at out-half) would surely need a week or two to find a rhythm before taking on one of the best sides in the world.

3. That’s why we’re champions…

At Leinster, Joe Schmidt’s second season was his finest and it was capped by a dominant Heineken Cup final win over Ulster. Throughout that campaign, Schmidt easily brushed aside talk of pressure as defending champions with a mantra of, ‘we’re not defending anything, it’s a fresh new tournament’, and we expect he will do so again.

As ever, time constraints make every task more difficult at international level and it will be intriguing to see how Schmidt and Ireland build on the success of last year’s Six Nations.

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Rhys Ruddock makes a break with the support of Paul O'Connell A maul is a beautiful thing. Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

Perhaps the only criticism of Schmidt through all the success in 2014 was the set-piece driven style of play. Now the man behind Ireland’s rapier-like maul John Plumtree is gone, Simon Easterby will have to put his stamp on the weapon which won the title last year.. Both Schmidt and his players have hinted that there will be a more expansive approach in attack this term, but if that’s the case then the Wolfhounds weren’t allowed touch the playbook before Friday night. We can’t wait to see how the attack shapes up against Italy.

4. Openside

Phew, that’s a lot of back-chat. Let’s take a breath and look at where games will actually be won: the ground.

It seems like Sean O’Brien will be held back from facing Italy and France and instead sent to Leinster to build up another chunk of match fitness. So, much like the Sexton situation, Ireland have a temporary vacancy at number seven.

Marthy Moore and Jordi Murphy Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The brilliant Chris Henry is still on the mend and Rhys Ruddock, who took the role in November, is in the latter stages of recovery from a broken arm. Again Schmidt is faced with a choice of picking a player he has preferred in the past out of position (Jordi Murphy) or an able alternative with more experience in the role (Tommy O’Donnell).

Peter O’Mahony and Jamie Heaslip are locked in to the other two back row positions, but the decision of who partners them will be an intriguing one.

5. Can we lay down World Cup markers?

There are so many fixtures coming up that we will be taking a close look at again in six months’ time before the World Cup pool fixtures comes around. You needn’t look much further than the Friday night opener between England and Wales, but for Ireland the opening week of competition will be a taster of what we can expect to face in London and Cardiff in the autumn.

Sergio Parisse and Paul OÕConnell Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The World Cup games should matter more, yet there is no room for holding anything back from the Six Nations for shock value. Getting shunted backwards physically also takes its toll mentally and so the best way for Ireland to get an early edge over their Pool D rivals Italy and France is to beat them early and well in this tournament.

– First published 11.33

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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