By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — One man in the Limerick crowd watching Munster’s drive to another European Cup semifinal will have breathed an extra long sigh of relief last weekend. Ireland coach Warren Gatland has already lost four front-line players through injury and any more would have put his team in jeopardy going into the opening game of the Six Nations against Italy in Rome on Saturday.
Thankfully, Gatland’s Munster contingent came through with a clean bill of health, but with Ireland’s star player, Brian O’Driscoll, as well as Denis Hickie, Simon Easterby and Kieron Dawson currently out of the picture, the national coach cannot afford further defections.
There was a time when such an injury list would have spelled gloom and doom for Team Ireland in advance of Europe’s annual international championship, but at least the progress of the Irish provinces in the professional era means that Gatland, unlike some of his beleaguered predecessors, now has some genuine strength in depth.
Not surprisingly, Munster provide most of that strength and no fewer than nine of the province could line out against Italy — a game that Ireland simply have to win to have any hope of a decent championship.
Last season began with a disastrous loss to England, but that setback was quickly forgotten when France were momentously beaten in Paris, where O’Driscoll made his mark on world rugby with three tries.
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The Irish also had victories over Italy and Scotland, but lost disappointingly to Wales in Dublin. However, the results were better than anything that had been produced during the 1990s.
"If you look at our history, when Irish sides have had a good championship, they’ve been whitewashed the next year," Gatland said. "There’s a self-belief in the camp and I’m confident that we’ll play well, but that doesn’t guarantee results. What we really need are good consistent performances."
At last the players are there — notwithstanding O’Driscoll’s temporary absence — to possibly even finish second behind England. Keith Wood and Malcolm O’Kelly are the undoubted stars of the forward pack, but there is also grizzled experience in the form of Peter Clohessy and Mick Galwey. There is talent behind the scrum from Rob Henderson and Shane Horgan, but Ireland’s chances may well hinge on how Ronan O’Gara and Peter Stringer cope in the vital half-back area.
Outstanding for Munster, O’Gara and Stringer were never as convincing for Ireland last year and this season will be a major test of their progress as playmakers. Ireland have lost each of their three test matches in Italy. It will be largely up to the Munster pair to assure that such an abysmal run doesn’t continue.
The games against France and England in Dublin offer hope, but if the Irish manage to pick off the inconsistent French once again, they will hardly be able to shift the favorites for the championship. England have already beaten South Africa and Australia this season and in out-half Johnny Wilkinson, they have one of the emerging stars of world rugby.
The away matches in Cardiff and Edinburgh are hard to call simply because the Irish always win in Cardiff and they always lose in Edinburgh. Those trends have to change sometime, but not at the same time. Victories over Italy, Wales and perhaps France are within Gatland’s compass. Anything more would be exceptional.
Ireland’s Six Nations Fixtures
Saturday: vs. Italy, Rome; Feb. 17: vs. France, Lansdowne Road; March 3: vs. Wales, Cardiff; March 24: vs. England, Lansdowne Road; April 7: vs. Scotland, Edinburgh.
Roster vs. Italy
G. Dempsey (Terenure); S. Horgan (Lansdowne), M. Mullins (Young Munster), R. Henderson (Wasps), T. Howe (Dungannon); R. O’Gara (Cork Constitution), P. Stringer (Shannon); P. Clohessy (Young Munster), K. Wood (Harlequins) capt., J. Hayes (Shannon), M. Galwey (Shannon), M. O’Kelly (St. Mary’s), A. Quinlan (Shannon), D. Wallace (Garryowen), A. Foley (Shannon).