Competition for places – that is the major turnaround in Ireland's fortunes this Six Nations. Irish players are competing within the squad for selection, a privilege that six months ago was the preserve of the senior players in Eddie O'Sullivan's camp.
The elimination of players to injury may have forced O'Sullivan's hand somewhat in this regard, but it is fair to say that his player selection is finally based on form, not player loyalty. Starting Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney and Andrew Trimble in the backs; sitting Shane Horgan on the bench; an unassured Paul O'Connell on the sideline – all this has brought a greater momentum to the team; players are incentivised and there is a a new vitality to the team. Ireland will face Warren Gatland's Welsh team one hundred per cent more confident than they were entering the Six Nations.
I'm not convinced that Wales are as good a side as their results suggest and I think Ireland can beat them. England should have beaten Wales by 20 points, Shane Williams ran in an illegal try against Scotland in a game that could have been much tighter, and Italy were well in contention until Wales scored an intercept try at a crucial point in the game.
Ireland began poorly against Italy when they failed to convert scoring opportunities. They upped the ante against France, but again missed some crucial try-scoring chances in the first half. They showed flashes of brilliance against Scotland, particularly in the backs where there are now playing with confidence.
Ireland are growing in assurance, but they have proven nothing so far. They defeated the two weakest teams in the competition and although they played well against France, England showed in February that France are not the best team in the tournament. But Ireland have momentum, and man-for-man they are a more talented team than Wales.
Wales will be the test and Ireland can do well, subject to player selection. There is a case for a defensive focus given the wealth of Welsh speedsters and counter-attackers. In Eddie O'Sullivan's opinion this will mean playing Girvan Dempsey at full-back, and possibly Shane Horgan in the back line. But Geordan Murphy was brought into the Ireland team against Scotland at the final hour, he did all O'Sullivan asked of him and more in a man of the match performance. He is one of the best performing full-backs in European rugby and he should be retained at his favoured position.
And in general, Eddie O'Sullivan should keep the momentum in the backs that has come through competition for places. Rob Kearney has two great kicking feet, he has pace to burn and he's an aggressive tackler. Tommy Bowe took his chance against Scotland and scored two tries – I believed from the start that he should have been in the Ireland side. Eoin Reddan has brought a breaking game that Ireland didn't have before. All these players should retain their starting positions againt Wales.
Back from injury, Shane Horgan is lingering on the fringes of the team, and suddenly Ireland now has a bench of very good impact players. He could come in at centre but Andrew Trimble has been a revelation in mid-field. He's not a natural winger in my opinion, even though he has played most of his test rugby in that position. He had a great game in the centre against Scotland and played well against France. This is great news for O'Sullivan because Luke Fitzgerald can also be developed as a natural centre and a successor to Brian O'Driscoll. Ireland now have some very good options in the backs.
However, one problem Ireland still has is a suitable replacement out-half for Ronan O'Gara. Paddy Wallace played well for Ulster in the centre recently. He showed that he can play as a back-up centre, but he is not considered to be a natural number ten. This is evident from Eddie O'Sullivan's substitutions this Six Nations; he is happy to empty out the bench except for one player - Wallace. He's not confident in Wallace's ability to run the game at out-half, which doesn't help Wallace and it doesn't help Ireland. Players must be developed for that position.
Ireland are probably the best scrummagers in the competition, but this is as much a reflection of the opposition as it is of Ireland's strength in the front-row – they would never have been rated as top scrummagers three or four years ago. The line-out is not effective yet and this area needs to be improved. This is not always the hooker's fault, there has to be co-ordination and communication between the jumpers, lifters and hooker. There is still a lack of the quick-rucking ball that is needed to unleash the backs and the forwards around the fringes, and this will constrain Ireland's attack.
These areas are crucial to retaining possession, and possession is crucial to Ireland's success. A better team than Scotland would have punished Ireland in the first half – they cannot concede as much possession to Wales who have the players to run in tries. Ireland must retain at least 50 per cent possession against both Wales and England. For this, the forwards' game is crucial, as are the set pieces and the ruck work.
I believe that Jerry Flannery and Paul O'Connell should start in the forwards against Wales. The Welsh tight five are strong and their pack will be no match for an experienced Munster tight five who know one another and have played together for years. Jamie Heaslip has been outstanding at number eight and Ireland's back row now has far better balance as a result. Denis Leamy's game has improved since he was relieved of the responsibility to make decisions at nuber eight. At blindside flanker he can concentrate on his own game. David Wallace has been consistent throughout.
England in Twickenham will be a tough match for Ireland because they have brought quite a good team together. Ireland will need to reach parity on the set pieces because England have a good line-out and scrum. Again, Ireland are a better team on paper, but they need to secure more possession because defending against England and Wales will take more energy out of the players than defending against Scotland or Italy. Sooner or later the defensive line will give way.
This year's championship will probably be decided on points differential. Ireland can win the Triple Crown but they don't have the points to win the Championship outright – the remaining games against Wales and England will not be high-scoring games.
England don't have a big points advantage so the championship is probably between Wales or France. France can run up a big score on Itay and then they have to beat Wales in Cardiff. Should Wales beat France the Championship is almost assuredly theirs. Even if Wales lose to Ireland, they can beat France in which case the big win the put over Italy in February will give them the requisite points differential.
Eddie O'Sullivan's remit entering this Six Nations was to get results, to revive the passion for Irish rugby that energised the players and public last year when Ireland demolished England. He was simultaneously required to blood new talent, but with the understanding that with less abandon .
Steady as ever, Eddie is beginning to achieve both. His selection against Italy was conservative, the game uninspiring. He relied on the senior players who disappointed at the World Cup, and they disappointed again against Italy.
But to his credit, O'Sullivan introduced new players to key positions against France and Scotland. Simon Easterby was relegated to the bench to make way for Jamie Heaslip who has since been inspirational at number eight. Geordan Murphy was brought in against France on the wing, then moved to his preferred full-back position against Scotland. Second row players have been rotated. Tony Buckley is being groomed as John Hayes' successor. Andrew Trimble is playing in his rightful mid-field position.
O'Sullivan's player rotation is a marked departure from the conservatism of old, albeit a slightly forced departure. The introduction of Bernard Jackman was warranted based on his performances for Leinster, but it was necessitated by Jerry Flannery's suspension. Similarly, O'Connell's injury brought the rotation in second row. Injuries to D'Arcy and Horgan required Trimble to move to the midfield, opening up places on the wing for Bowe and Kearney.
Enter the Dragon
Warren Gatland can concieve of no better outcome than to come to Ireland, win the Triple Crown, stick two digits up to the IRFU and walk on water back to Wales. There is no love lost between Gatland and the IRFU or Eddie O'Sullivan since Gatland;s sudden dismissal as Irish coach in 2001, and Eddie's immediate promotion from assistant to head coach. Following his successes at Wasps in with three English Premierships and a European Cup title, and having won the domestic trophy with Waikato in his native New Zealand, this game is a matter of pride for Gatland. The expectation that either O'Sullivan or Gatland will lead the 2009 Lions team adds even more diesel to the fire.