The Reuters global sports blog
Don’t discount Ireland for the Six Nations
By James Illingworth
The 2011 Six Nations kicks off shortly in Cardiff with much of the pre-tournament hype suggesting a two-horse race between France and England.
England’s favourites tag among English bookmakers looks unjustified if it is based on one decent performance in November against Australia, with the 2010 grand slam winners France surely still the team to beat.
But one quirk of the buildup is that Ireland appear to have been overlooked as serious challengers, a point not missed by England coach Martin Johnson.
As his Welsh counterpart Warren Gatland was doing his best Jose Mourinho impression by announcing that his team are planning to ‘wind-up’ English hooker Dylan Hartley, Johnson was keen to remind us not to write off the 2009 grand slam winners.
After being installed as third favourites, Johnson suggested that Ireland have ‘slipped under the radar’, a tag that may play into the hands of Brian O’Driscoll’s side.
Munster’s demise in this year’s Heineken Cup has led to speculation that Ireland’s golden generation of players are past their best with the new crop of talent needing a few more years to find their feet at international level.
Injuries to influential forwards Jamie Heaslip and Stephen Ferris and exciting outside backs Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney have also contributed to the view that Ireland may struggle this year.
But it should not be so easy to disregard a side that contains O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy in the midfield, Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls in the back three and a forward pack led by Paul O’Connell, who returns after missing the Autumn internationals.
And with Tomas O’Leary and Jonathan Sexton reunited in the half-backs, the Leinster flyhalf fresh from orchestrating his province’s qualification to the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup, Ireland have a backline who can threaten any team in the world playing behind a vastly experienced pack.
Spurred on by their lacklustre performances in November, when two wins in four games did little to ignite much optimism amongst their fans, and with crucial home advantage against France a week on Sunday and England on March 19, Ireland may prove they are still a force to be reckoned with ahead of September’s World Cup.
They kick-off their campaign in Rome on Saturday which should act as the perfect way to ease themselves into the tournament, expect a gritty Italian defensive performance with Ireland’s class showing in the second half.
And as for slipping under the radar, it will suit O’Driscoll, he’s been slipping through the opposition’s defensive radar for years.