Does anyone else still feel it? That mother and father of hangovers from the World Cup last year? Or is it just me? With only days to go to the start of the 2016 6 Nations Championship I cannot help but feel the way you do the morning after the night before, sick and with a dose of the fear.
Memories of October last and the mauling Ireland received at the hands of Argentina still leave me with an empty feeling in the pit of stomach. The Pumas ran in four tries and utterly dominated an Irish side depleted by injury and fresh out of ideas or answers. Images of bodies strewn all around, our heroes being stretchered and helped off by medics, our World Cup dreams shattered once again.
Now, as we poke our heads up from hiding out after a winter of storms we are faced with a worry or two. Paul O’Connell, our captain, our general, our rugby messiah, has hung up his green shirt for the last time. Three of the four provinces are struggling. Only Connacht is giving us something to be proud of. No Irish side in the quarter finals of the Champions Cup since 1998. Jesus. Not exactly the green shoots of Spring.
This year Ireland faces into a 6 Nations campaign that sees Wales coming to Dublin on Saturday February 6th followed by two away fixtures against England and France. In no uncertain terms, this is the toughest set of fixtures possibly ever faced by a newly minted Irish captain, that in the form of Ulster’s Rory Best. Don’t get me wrong, Best is a solid unit and has a proven record for performing on the big stage. However he now has to lead a strangely unfamiliar squad, one eroded by injury. Bowe, O’Mahony, Healy, Henderson, Henry, Fitzgerald, Ross, all in various states of recovery, none ready for war. fa
Schmidt has rightly decided to blood 4 new names, CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, Ultan Dillane and Stuart McCloskey. Admittedly Stander and van der Flier are vastly experienced and will be powerful additions to the squad. As for Dillane and McCloskey, they are young and will undoubtedly need time. However, they have been given a great opportunity to lay claim to places on the starting 15. Bringing new caps into the fold is vital, especially now as Ireland moves into unchartered territory.
When Brian O’Driscoll retired we were reassured with the totemic presence of O’Connell. Now with O’Connell gone, we are nervously looking around wondering who we can turn to and just how bad things might be.
Maybe I am being too pessimistic. Maybe things are not as bad as they seem and we will, as recent history tells us, steamroll Wales in Dublin. Great, back to business as usual, hangover forgotten. Or maybe I am right. The Welsh forward line and scrum is stronger than ours. Without that foundation Ireland is going to find it very tough. If life does imitates art, you might say that O’Connell is our Jon Snow and Winter is Coming.
Image Credit: INPHO/Dan Sheridan