With the opening games of the Six Nations Championship kicking off this weekend, Daniel Keenan casts an eye over the strength of Ireland’s squad
After an unbeaten and victorious 2009 season, Ireland go into the Six Nations with the weight of expectation on their backs. Possessing a squad of players that have finally fulfilled their potential and applied their ability to become the best side in the northern hemisphere, coach Declan Kidney has a specific job to do in maintaining this winning mentality.
Ireland’s only real problems lie in their front row, though with the likes of Marcus Horan continuing his comeback from illness by playing with the Ireland ‘A’ team on Sunday, the front row is likely to have strong cover in a matter of weeks should there be issues.
Cian Healy will, more than likely, be starting against Italy, and has been in good form for Leinster this season, particularly at the loosehead, but at times he has been less than impressive in the scrum. Ireland were bullied in the scrum against South Africa in November, and Healy will know that to keep his place throughout the Six Nations, the scrum will have to be a rock of consistency.
The longstanding problem of what to do if John Hayes gets injured also still remains. Mike Ross – and more probably, Tony Buckley – will be vying for the chance to step in. Neither, however, are players capable of matching the raw physicality and presence that Hayes’ bring to the Irish pack.
London Irish captain Bob Casey is a notable exclusion from the Ireland squad, though with respective Leinster and Munster captains in the shape of Leo Cullen and Paul O’Connell, along with the experience of Donnacha O’Callaghan, Kidney will feel he has enough quality and experience in the second row to dodge any possible crises. Should there be an urgent need to draft in replacements, 6’11” Devin Toner warrants consideration and a taste of a full international squad.
Working through the forwards numerically, a sudden abundance of back row talent gives Kidney an amazing strength in depth in a position that was probably Ireland’s best during the last Six Nations. The powerhouses of Stephen Ferris and David Wallace at either side of the ever-present Jamie Heaslip, would probably have been the British and Irish Lions’ starting back row, if it wasn’t for Ferris’ unfortunate injury. With Sean O’Brien, Kevin McLaughlin, Shane Jennings and Niall Ronan, Ireland have an array of talented back-ups, without even mentioning Denis Leamy, who has been plighted with injury once more.
As in the autumn, Jonathan Sexton and Ronan O’Gara will go toe-to-toe for the fly-half berth. After a man-of-the-match award on his debut against Fiji, and a strong performance against the World Champions, Sexton proved himself capable of performing on the international rugby stage. His broken hand following the autumn internationals has allowed O’Gara to rack up more game time since, though – games in which the Munster man has produced some sterling performances.
Sexton will expect that his endgame heroics in Twickenham against London Irish, where he capped a good all round game with a courageous drop goal – reminiscent of O’Gara’s against Wales last year – will have cemented his place in the team.
After Paddy Wallace’s selection for the Ireland ‘A’ squad, Leinster duo Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll can confidently expect to renew their centre partnership in international rugby, while Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney have their respective positions nailed down. A serious knee injury to Luke Fitzgerald rules him out for the entire Six Nations, and it appears to be a battle of youth versus experience for his vacant position. Shane Horgan has rolled back the years this season, but faces stiff competition from Keith Earls. On the basis of form alone, the 22-year-old should start, especially after Horgan’s stuttering performance against London Irish gave food for thought.
Now with more strength in depth, this year’s squad looks capable of even outshining last year’s. Another Grand Slam is well within this team’s capabilities.