Peter Bills: Inspiration could take Ireland to a Grand Slam

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It’s a team that looks chock full of hope and ability. There’s a beguiling mixture of the experienced – Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell, John Hayes, Ronan O’Gara and David Wallace – and the comparatively inexperienced – Rob Kearney, Tomas O’Leary, Luke Fitzgerald, Stephen Ferris, Tommy Bowe and Jamie Heaslip.

There’s a bold, brave selection at inside centre in Paddy Wallace who gets in on current form, always the best arbiter for selection. There’s pace on the wings and a full-back who can kick a mile but also loves to run.

For sure, there’s a hint of a new Ireland about this team. But will it bring new results? Will seven matches of failure against France be turned into a victory against them which would be Ireland’s first since 2003 in Dublin?

The key for me is what difference Ireland’s new coach will make. The core of this side has been together for sometime, without conspicuous success. Yes, they’ve settled readily enough for the runners-up prize of a Triple Crown in three of the last five years, which does at least show some consistency of performance.

But ask Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell if, hand on heart, they will be happy eventually to walk off into retirement with a few Triple Crowns in their locker, and I’m telling you the answer would be an emphatic no.

Both men, indeed anyone with an interest in Irish rugby, would surely want 2009 to be the year Ireland won the International Championship title for the first time since 1985. Nearly a quarter of a century is an absurd amount of time for one country to wait to be Champions but that has to be the least target for the likes of O’Driscoll and O’Connell.

Of course, the real dream, the deep desire is to land a Grand Slam, which would be Ireland’s first since 1948. But to do that, you don’t indulge in dreams, just realities and facts. Ireland must first beat France this weekend to stay in the hunt for that ultimate honour. Then they have to contemplate winning in Cardiff, never an easy task now that the demanding and hugely inspirational Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards are at the helm of Welsh coaching.

The question is, can Declan Kidney inspire his men to go where those in Eddie O’Sullivan’s charge conspicuously failed to go? Can Kidney’s quiet, motivational ways – so successful with Munster – be translated into success on the national stage? Can he drag the best from each of his players and, most crucially, build the type of close understanding, unity and collective that has been at the heart of Munster’s success?

It goes without saying that Munster isn’t Ireland and the Heineken Cup is not the Six Nations Championship. That makes Kidney’s task so much harder. But you only have to look to Wales to see the remarkable turn around caused by Gatland’s arrival. From being a World Cup embarrassment in 2007 and failing even to qualify for the quarter finals as well as winning only one of their five matches the previous season, Wales suddenly won the Grand Slam last year.

Don’t tell me that wasn’t due in large part to Gatland’s influence.

Can Kidney have a similar effect on Ireland this season? Can he produce just that extra 5 or 10 per cent from each of his players that could make so much difference?

As Brian O’Driscoll rightly says, the margins between winning and losing in this tournament are desperately slim. Luck can even be the decisive factor although I subscribe to the theory that you mostly make your own luck in life.

There isn’t any doubt that, if Ireland could build a winning momentum, they would be very hard to stop. They have quality players throughout their team.

But the key for me is what difference can Kidney make? If just a fraction of the winning mentality he established at Munster can be brought to the national side, you never know how far Ireland might go. Will he also let his players play, not enmesh them in the kind of tactical straightjacket which O’Sullivan seemed so fond of using during his coaching tenure?

A lot of questions, as yet no answers. But we might start to get a few by early evening on Saturday……………

Ireland: R Kearney (Leinster), T Bowe (Ospreys), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, captain), P Wallace (Ulster), L Fitzgerald (Leinster), R O'Gara (Munster), T O'Leary (Munster), M Horan (Munster), J Flannery (Munster), J Hayes (Munster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), P O'Connell (Munster), S Ferris (Ulster), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster).

Replacements: R Best (Ulster), T Court (Ulster), M O'Kelly (Leinster), D Leamy (Munster), P Stringer (Munster), G D'Arcy (Leinster), G Murphy (Leicester).