Dave Gantly reflects on one of the most disappointing Six Nations campaigns in recent memory.
One win in five matches. Constant injuries. Baffling decisions. Where do we start really with Ireland’s overall Six Nations performance?
Ireland came in to this year’s Championship with a sense of optimism having beaten an Argentinian side that looked like they wanted to be elsewhere, coming to the end of the year. A 46 – 24 scoreline was just what Ireland deserved and needed coming in to this year’s Six Nations.
Already without Ulster winger Tommy Bowe, Munster’s Paul O’Connell, Leinster’s Richardt Strauss and Ulster’s Stephen Ferris, Ireland could ill afford to lose any more players to injury. What followed tested Ireland’s resources to the limit. Injury after injury meant Head Coach Declan Kidney had some big calls to make.
Losing Jonathan Sexton in the first half of the English game was a massive blow, with Munster’s Simon Zebo also joining the casualty list. Having played well against the Welsh in the first round of fixtures and picking up that crucial first win, to lose these two players so soon after was cruel. Sexton is the key cog in the Irish back line along with Brian O’Driscoll. His creative play and kicking are second to none and It’s no surprise he is favourite to take the no 10 jersey for the Lions this summer if fit, which he is expected to be.
An out of form Ronan O’Gara replaced Sexton but failed to convince Kidney and his backroom staff he was the best man equipped to replace the Racing Metro bound Sexton. There is no doubting O’Gara is one of the best out half’s to ever don a green jersey and the decision to drop him was met with an expected sense of shock. Kidney had to have a solid back up plan having made such a brave call and calling up Ulster’s Paddy Jackson was a huge risk.
There is no doubting his talent but making your debut against Scotland in a must win game is a lot to ask. He looked nervous which was to be expected and his missed kicks proved crucial to Ireland’s loss against the Scots. He’s not the only one to blame, however. O’Gara came on to try save the day but the damage was done.
Leinster’s Ian Madigan was called up to provide cover for Jackson for the French game, with many calling for him to start. However, Jackson gave a much improved all round performance to silence his critics – momentarily. With Sexton back and passed fit to start Ireland’s last game against the Italians, this was a timely boost given the amount of injuries Ireland had. To then lose him to a new injury summed up Ireland’s fortunes.
The spotlight was once again on Paddy Jackson. Nailing five kicks did Jackson’s confidence no harm but It was not enough for Ireland. Madigan was brought on and looked lively, getting the backline moving with his passing and smart runs. Losing Luke Fitzgerald, Luke Marshall, Eoin Reddan and Keith Earls proved too much and they succumbed to their first defeat against Italy in the Six Nations.
The next hotly debated topic was the decision by Kidney to replace Brian O’Driscoll as captain with Leinster’s Jamie Heaslip. With Heaslip having captained Ireland in the November series in O’Driscoll’s absence, Kidney must have been thinking in terms of the future and the World Cup in 2015. O’Driscoll, by his own admission, will not be gracing that tournament. But there is still no doubt O’Driscoll is the leader of the team at present and proved this once again throughout the Six Nations. Heaslip made some dubious decisions, did not have a great Six Nations by his own standards and failed to lead by example.
O’Driscoll is a strong contender to lead the Lions down under this summer. It would be his fourth Lions tour in a truly fascinating career. If the loss to Italy proves to be his last game in an Irish shirt, this just proves how cruel sport can be. The same can be said for Ronan O’Gara. Two stalwarts who deserve much more after such loyal service. The loss of the captaincy would no doubt have hurt O’Driscoll. But Kidney did make the wrong call and should have restored O’Driscoll as Captain upon his return.
Heaslip may grow in to the role and should be given more time to assert his authority on the team, but first he has to lead by example. His performances in the Six Nations have dealt his Lions chances a major blow. Going from possible Captain and test starter to not making the plane sums up his Six Nations. He will need to get back to his best for Leinster to force his way back into Gatland’s plans.
There are some positives for Ireland to take out of this Championship. The younger players in the squad gave a good account of themselves and will only get better.
Players such as scrum half Conor Murray, blindside flanker Peter O’Mahony, Leinster’s Ian Madigan and Ulster’s Paddy Jackson can be more than happy with their contribution. Murray had his greatest game so far in an Irish shirt in his man of the match performance against France at the Aviva, with O’Mahony his strongest contender to take the accolade that day. Jackson on the other hand will have a battle with Madigan for understudy to Sexton.
Madigan looked more threatening with ball in hand and with more game time given Sexton’s departure, he will keep improving no doubt. As for Jackson, he can be reasonably happy with his performances having been thrown in at the deep end. Lets not forget Luke Marshall who had a solid Championship both offensively and defensively but injury curtailed his involvement. He is looking like a real contender to take over the no 12 shirt.
As for Lions involvement, Wales brilliant performance over England on the last day to win the Championship means it is likely the Welsh contingent will be well represented on the tour. Leigh Halfpenny seems to have to the fullback test spot having been rightly confirmed as the Player of the Championship. Rob Kearney finished the campaign strongly however and should travel to provide competition for Halfpenny.
Brian O’Driscoll had a solid Six Nations and barring injury, should take his place in the touring party. Jonny Sexton, having seen his Championship cut short by injury, will travel if he is fit as expected and he will battle it out with Owen Farrell to take the no 10 jersey. With a solid performance at scrum half throughout the Championship, Conor Murray has done his chances no harm and will look to keep impressing for Munster. Cian Healy has a lot of competition to take his place in the front row but he is also expected to travel while Rory Best is less certain, having seen his form steadily decline.
Gatland’s known admiration of Mike Ross puts the Leinster man in a strong position to travel. He faces stiff competition from Welsh tight head Adam Jones. Donnacha Ryan is another man to have caught Gatland’s eye and if he can now produce his best form for Munster, he should make it.
Peter O’Mahony is the kind of character that would thrive on a tour and his leadership skills and dedication to the cause will do his chances no harm. The competition in the back row is fierce though. Sean O’Brien, possibly Ireland’s stand out player in the Six Nations, should travel and compete with the likes of Warburton and Robshaw for a test jersey.
With Paul O’Connell now fit and back in action, he can also not be ruled out. Likewise with Tommy Bowe, if he can get back playing regularly in time he may have a chance.
As for Declan Kidney, with his contract up soon, It is time to give someone else a chance in the hot seat. Joe Schmidt and Conor O Shea have been mentioned and would be worthy successors.
Who ever is in place, let’s hope he can guide Ireland back to the top.
The World Cup in England in 2015 will not be long coming around.
Sport Is Everything. Dave Gantly.
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