THE Six Nations is kicking off this weekend and the form of the Irish provinces in general bodes well for Eddie O’Sullivan and Co. But Gloucester’s win against Leinster and the Tigers’ historic victory against the men in red at Thomond Park – coupled with Wasps’ and Northampton’s progression to the final eight – will have provided the English camp with a timely boost of confidence.
Leicester’s defeat of the current European champions in Limerick (and the dominance the Tigers pack enjoyed for the majority of the 80 minutes) will have been most welcomed by new English head coach, Brian Ashton. Munster were given a lesson at scrum time by the powerful Leicester eight. Led by Julian White and Italian Martin Castrogiovanni, arguably two of the best props in the business, the Tigers were not only very comfortable on their own put-in, but steamrolled Munster on more than one occasion to turn them over on theirs. Leuis Moody and Martin Corry were influential in a back row that also included Ireland’s Shane Jennings, who was outstanding at the breakdown. Leuis Deacon and another Irishman, Leo Cullen, went toe to toe with their more lauded opponents in the second row while hooker George Chutter cemented his place in England’s Six Nations squad. In fact, all five of the English members of that Leicester pack are named in Ashton’s squad to face Scotland this Saturday.
There was much drama over the last weekend of Heineken Cup pool games before the last eight were ultimately finalised. From an Irish perspective it wasn’t a great weekend with all three provinces failing to record a W beside their name. Ulster, who have now failed to progress past the pool stages for eight successive seasons, had nothing but pride to play for. They took on Toulouse, the other also-rans of Pool Five, in the south of France and lost 28-13. That game grabbed many of the headlines after the weekend but unfortunately for all the wrong reasons due to an incident between Trevor Brennan, who was warming up for Toulouse at the time, and an Ulster fan. The issue has yet to be resolved.
Both Leinster and Munster now face tough away assignments in the quarter-finals. Mind you, home or away, there are no easy games to be had at this stage. Leinster go head to head against the 2004 champions, Wasps, while Munster must travel to Stradey Park to take on the Llanelli Scarlets over the last weekend of March.
In the Six Nations, Scotland will be hoping to build on the vast improvements they have shown in the last 12 months but a nervous England should just about squeeze it at Twickenham. Victory in the Calcutta Cup match followed by a more assured, confident display against the competitive and ever-improving Italians could see England, with a pack consisting a few Leicester Tigers hungry for more, arrive to take on Ireland at Croke Park with a renewed sense of confidence. Let’s remember that the majority of the Irish pack in recent seasons has come from Munster.
Yet, it is these Munster packs that have provided both the province and Ireland with the platform to record some of Irish rugby’s most memorable victories. They are used to the doubters and the knockers and have proven them wrong on so many occasions. Let’s not also forget that both Leinster and Ulster are setting the pace at the top of the Celtic League once again this season. Consider also the consistently high level of performance that Brian O’Driscoll and his team have delivered over recent seasons, especially in the most recent autumn internationals. Given all that, the provinces’ less than successful European weekend can be written off as a blip, irrelevant to both the mindset and the confidence levels of this current Irish squad.
Ireland have been installed as favourites for the championship this year, but taking on Wales at the Millennium Stadium this weekend is no easy task by any stretch of the imagination. The Welsh rediscovered some of their blistering form of 2005 for large periods of last year’s autumn internationals. Wingers Shane Williams and Mark Jones, who typify the Welsh ambition to play open, running rugby, are out through injury. But Wales will still undoubtedly stick to their all-out-attack philosophy that has proved most successful in recent seasons. The Welsh regions are more competitive than ever this year with the impressive Llanelli Scarlets progressing to the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup unbeaten. With two confident sides meeting in a packed Millennium Stadium we could get fireworks on the opening weekend. And who knows what the French will bring to the party when they take on Italy at Rome this Saturday?
I’M HOPING FOR MORE GAME TIME IN LONDON
HERE AT Harlequins we failed to progress to the last eight of the European Challenge Cup even though we managed to secure a bonus point victory against Connacht at the Stoop. Other results across the groups didn’t go our way so we lost out due to our inferior try count. It was of course our two defeats to Bath earlier in the group stage that hurt us the most. We rectified one of those defeats by overcoming the West Country men in the Premiership early this month and last Saturday saw us do battle again for the fourth time in nine weeks, also in the Premiership. The Rec is a hard place to go and win, and unfortunately it proved so again on Saturday as the home side stormed into a 24-6 half-time lead and held on to win 31-23.
Unfortunately I haven’t been getting much game time at the moment. There is tough competition for places in the backline at present and the lads are playing well. It’s a frustrating position to be in but it is the same for anyone left out of the starting 15 or match day 22. There are 35 or so in the squad so there will always be lads unhappy that they aren’t playing. I think it’s fair to say that everyone experiences frustration and disappointment at some stage during their sporting life, whether through injury, loss of form or just someone else making the most of a chance. It’s an occupational hazard I suppose! We all believe we are good enough and the best in our position but such is the nature of sport. You just got to keep your head down and keep plugging away, confident that when your chance comes around again you’ll take it. You just hope that that chance will come sooner rather than later.