Thursday, February 4, 2010

Six Nations: Why Ireland can achieve the almost impossible dream

If nothing else the 2010 Six Nations Championship will break new ground on the musical front. In their wisdom, the organisers have commissioned an official anthem, cunningly entitled Six Together, to give the tournament – ahem – a "new sonic identity". The idea is to combine a Welsh harp, Irish pipes, Scottish bagpipes, a French accordion, an Italian mandolin and an English cathedral choir on the same record, a concept which could easily broaden the definition of Eurotrash. Come back Max Boyce, Harry Lauder and Pavarotti, all is forgiven.

It is too late now but Bryan Ferry's version of Let's Stick Together, or Tom Jones's Delilah, would have been more appropriate. What is the Six Nations if not a collective, cross-border celebration of history, fraternity and late-night karaoke? If it has a traditional backing track it is the sound of raucous cheering drifting from the pubs of Rose Street and Baggot Street and gales of laughter on matchday trains. I remember staying in a guest house close to Lansdowne Road and discussing the afternoon's game with the landlady. Her son would be there, she said, although he did not have a ticket. "Just you wait and see," she said, winking. Sure enough, an hour prior to kick-off, an ambulance drew up outside the front door. Into the back jumped yer man, who promptly lay down on a stretcher and covered himself up with a blanket. Within seconds the ambulance had disappeared around the corner to be ushered straight into the ground. The Irish are truly a resourceful people, economic downturn or not.

Which is another good reason why Brian O'Driscoll's side may just be worth backing to collect a second title to add to the long-awaited triumph of 2009, their first grand slam since 1948. Hang around long enough for an ambulance and the chances of two arriving improve. To win consecutive Six Nations slams, however, is about more than mere good fortune or the law of averages. England have achieved the feat twice since the Great War, Wales have not managed it for a century and Scotland, Ireland and Italy are still waiting. Only France in 1997 and 1998 have cracked the code in the professional era and both of those successes were in the old Five Nations.

What people always forget is the tournament's X-factor: the ceaseless undertow of ancient rivalry. No one likes an uppity neighbour, as Wales discovered last season.

"There's more pressure on defending champions and we found that last year," said Warren Gatland, the Wales coach who used to be in charge of Ireland. "Everyone targets you as the game to win. I wouldn't normally have expected France to be doing a lap of honour in Paris, having beaten Wales. Ireland will go in as favourites but they've got two tough games in England and France and our meetings with them are really close. On the plus side, they've got two teams playing well in Europe at the moment, a lot of experience and a lot of confidence."

Ireland also have a coach, Declan Kidney, who knows more about the psychology behind sustained success than most. Under Kidney, Munster developed from perennial nearly-men into ruthless champions. If some of the players involved are long in the tooth – John Hayes is about to become the first man to play 50 Six Nations games – the mentality has been absorbed by the next generation. Talk to the likes of Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip and they will tell you, not cockily but matter‑of‑fact, that they expect to win every game. Winning is a habit and Ireland are disinclined to kick it, particularly with O'Driscoll at the helm. "We're owed nothing in this Six Nations" he said. "You don't retain anything, you give it back and then you try and win it again. We need to start from scratch. It will be the same attitude we've had for the past 10 years. You try and build into a competition, you don't win it in the first couple of weeks. That's how you lose it."

Ireland V Italy Hospitality

Six Nations Hospitality

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