2011 promises to be a watershed year for the Irish Rugby team. The Rugby World Cup begins in Auckland on the 9th of September but before that there is the little matter of the Six Nations championship which should whet our appetite for the year ahead.
First off, there has been talk in the media that Declan Kidney will use the SIx Nations as a testing ground for the big event in New Zealand. This view is utter tosh and Kidney will be hell bent on winning the Championship again. Historically, teams that win the World Cup do well in their respective championships that year. Doing well in this Six Nations would give Ireland self belief and confidence that they can mix it with the big boys in the World Cup. A poor Six Nations could be calamitous for the Irish psyche and squad morale.
Alas, in order to succeed in the Six Nations Kidney will need a healthy dose of good fortune, namely he will need his best 20 players to be injury free and in good form. Already our first choice hooker Jerry Flannery is a doubt for the Six Nations with a calf injury and Ireland can ill afford too many other drop outs. In 2009, Kidney was blessed with having a first choice panel to pick from and even then he still needed to rest some players in the crucial and often forgotten 4th game against Scotland.
To win a Grand Slam this year for any team is a tall order as the gap between all Six Nations has shrunk dramatically. Scotland proved that by winning in Croke Park last season whilst Italy even have been energised by the inclusion of 2 of their club teams in the Magners League. Having said this, Ireland normally do well in years where they have England and France at home.
Ireland begin this years campaign in Rome against their World Cup Pool opponents and should have too much for Nick Mallet’s side. Kidney will be looking for a solid start and no injuries before his men take on the French in the new Lansdowne Road. A raucous atmosphere could take Ireland to great heights here and the French looked in disarray when capitulating to Australia in the November test in Stade de France.
A big plus for Ireland this year will be having two top class fly halves battling it out for the number 10 jersey. Hopefully Kidney will avoid the mistakes of his predecessor as coach Eddie O Sullivan and will utilise the entire squad. O’ Gara, Leamy, Cronin, Murphy, Stringer, Horgan, Mick O’ Driscoll, Cullen, O’ Brien and Trimble are not first choice at the moment but all of these men and more can contribute massively to the cause. These players will not let us down if chosen to start. The Six Nations nowadays is a war of attrition as much as anything and long gone are the days when fifteen players could win you every match.
Additionally the use of fringe players will ensure greater competition and intensity within the squad. O’ Sullivan infamously stuck to a rigid starting 15 in his final days as coach and this ultimately lead to his demise.
A two week break then follows before our third test against the Scottish in Murrayfield and Ireland have found it difficult in winning here in ’09 and ’07. Wales are the next foes to be dealt with in the Millennium Stadium before we face the English at the Aviva in what could potentially be a title deciding showdown.
We are less than a month away from kick off in the Six Nations and with Paul O’ Connell returning from injury and Sean O’ Brien ready to be unleashed , I for one am expecting a good showing from Ireland. A Grand Slam may be beyond us but a championship decider against England on St Patrick’s Weekend could be in store.
If Ireland are still standing after the Six Nations, we then face the prospect of Four “Warm Up” tests in August before we fly to New Zealand. France (twice), Scotland and England will be the opponents as the heat rises for the big event.
Ireland’s rugby World Cup campaign kicks off against the USA Eagles coached by none other than Eddie O’ Sullivan. On paper at least i believe that the World Cup fixtures and draw are set up well for us. A week after the game against the Eagles, Ireland face Australia in what should be a winner takes all encounter. Australia possess a breathtaking array of back line talent and will be seeking the easiest route possible to the Final. A tough encounter awaits for Ireland but we should not be daunted by the Wallabies.
Russia are the 3rd opponents in what should be an opportunity for our 2nd choice team to prove their worth. Italy then will provide the big challenge in the final Pool fixture in what is likely to be a tussle for second place. Our pool is by no means as treacherous as our 2007 campaign and we should emerge in second place at least.
If we top the Pool, then it is likely that either Wales or Fiji or Samoa will lie in wait. This would present a glorious opportunity for Ireland to make history and to progress to the semi finals for the first time in our history. This is the carrot that dangles in front of Kidney’s men and we should put all our energy into topping this Group. Australia, Captained by ex-Leinster man Rocky Elsom have wonderful talent but this Irish side is packed with potential also and can take them in a one off match.
If not, then we are likely to face the winners of Pool D which probably will be South Africa. Again, Ireland would have nothing to fear here. The Springboks are not currently operating at the same level as their 2007 vintage and appear to have a weaker coaching structure in place. Against this, we lost to them in the Aviva as recently as November and we would need to up our game considerably to topple them.
England in the semi’s then followed by the All Blacks in the final? Dream on! Stranger things have however happened. In order to progress to the Semi’s, Ireland need to break the mental barrier of never having beaten a top 3 side in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s a big ask but nothing is beyond Kidney and his men.
A glorious swansong to ensue for Brian O’ Driscoll, David Wallace, Ronan O’ Gara and John Hayes as Ireland win the Six Nations championship and bound into the World Cup Semi Finals??…….This is likely to be too much to ask for. A Quarter Final slot seems likely in the World Cup at the moment but a strong showing in the Six Nations would salvage the season. 2011 is likely to be a momentous year for the national team. A number of stalwarts are likely to retire at seasons end and the landscape is likely to change utterly in 2012. Here’s hoping that these stalwarts receive a fitting conclusion to a glorious era in Irish rugby.
Fri 28th Jan 11 19:30 F Scotland A v Irish Wolfhounds Netherdale
Fri 4th Feb 11 19:30 F Irish Wolfhounds v England Saxons Ravenhill
Sat 5th Feb 11 15:30 6N Italy v Ireland Stadio Flaminio
Sun 6th Feb 11 14:30 6N-6N Italy Women v Ireland Women Rovigo
Fri 11th Feb 11 19:30 6N-6N Ireland Women v France Women Ashbourne RFC
Sun 13th Feb 11 15:00 6N Ireland v France AVIVA Stadium
Sat 26th Feb 11 14:00 6N-6N Scotland Women v Ireland Women Lasswade RFC, Edinburgh
Sun 27th Feb 11 15:00 6N Scotland v Ireland Murrayfield
Sat 12th Mar 11 17:00 6N Wales v Ireland Millennium Stadium
Sun 13th Mar 11
6N-6N Wales Women v Ireland Women Bridgend RFC
Fri 18th Mar 11 19:30 6N-6N Ireland Women v England Women Ashbourne RFC
Sat 19th Mar 11 17:00 6N Ireland v England AVIVA Stadium
Sat 6th Aug 11
F Scotland v Ireland Murrayfield
Sat 13th Aug 11
F France v Ireland TBA
Sat 20th Aug 11
F Ireland v France AVIVA Stadium
Sat 27th Aug 11
F Ireland v England AVIVA Stadium
Sun 11th Sep 11 18:00 RWC-PC Ireland v United States Yarrow Stadium
Sat 17th Sep 11 20:30 RWC-PC Australia v Ireland Eden Park
Sun 25th Sep 11 18:00 RWC-PC Ireland v Russia International Stad.
Sun 2nd Oct 11 20:30 RWC-PC Ireland v Italy Forsyth Barr Stadium