In reality, it doesn’t really work like that. The Ireland coaching staff will already have a good idea of what a player is about and who they’re likely to select — it’s hard to accelerate yourself into the team off the back of one good performance. It is, however, very easy to set yourself back in games like tonight’s in Cork.
To get into the reckoning for the Six Nations, you have to tip away at a consistent level with your club or province, but if you have a bad game it can set you back weeks. If you’re a 7/10 or 8/10 player every week and then you have a stinker, a 4/10 performance, it’s hard to get back in the good books because you’ll need another four 8/10 games to eradicate that one bad showing.
The trick with these games is not to focus too much on yourself as an individual — the team and the player in question both suffer otherwise. It’s more important to gel as a cohesive unit quickly; a good collective performance will favourably highlight the ability of the individuals involved.
Nonetheless, players are selfish by nature so many of those involved tonight — especially those who aren’t — will be wanting to get themselves right in time for the Six Nations.
Chief among them is Ian Madigan, who will line out at number 10 tonight having played most of his rugby for Leinster at 12. He’s been very good in a green jersey with the opportunities he’s got, but he hasn’t had sufficient game-time in big games as an out-half to know how well he can manage or control a game. Every other facet of his play has been impressive, so with respect to Ian Keatley, I don’t think there’s much debate in the management’s heads as to who is going to start at 10 against Italy.
It’s been said this week Madigan picked a bad time for his usually reliable goal-kicking to let him down against Wasps last weekend, where he missed four kicks as Leinster drew 20-20. Only he could tell you whether he was affected by nerves; it was the biggest pressure game of the season so for Leinster, and goal-kickers aren’t robots — whether it’s Jonny Wilkinson, Dan Carter, Johnny Sexton or myself, we’ve all felt that heat come on us.
It could also have been one of those days where you feel like you’re doing the same thing you do every week, but something just isn’t going right. You have to allow for days like that, but it’s important for him now to get back to the level he’s been at for the last while. If he kicks 2/6 tonight and then 3/7 against Italy then you could say there’s a mini-crisis alright, but at the moment it’s nothing.
The mental side of goal-kicking fascinates me. Johnny Sexton has spoken about the unusual things that sometimes pop into his head during his kicking routine — he said he sometimes imagines his wife or his mother watching through their hands as he lines the kick up — and that changes from game to game. Some days, it is just so easy; you’re in the zone, you don’t even notice there’s people looking at you. It feels like you’re in bed, dreaming. There’s times when I’ve thought about going for a burger in Hillbillys after a game while I’m lining up a kick, whereas other times you’d be thinking ‘the whole game comes down to this kick’ and you’re fully aware of everyone watching, which isn’t the right way to think about it either.
There’s good learnings to be taken from failures, and Madigan will know that. As a goal-kicker, you must have a technique you completely believe in, one that is as natural as possible to suit your style, physique and body shape. You must ensure your technique is good enough to withstand a cup final atmosphere; if it isn’t, you might get away with it in the pool stages of a European cup but it’ll bite you in the semis or the final. Every Six Nations game brings that kind of pressure.
Elsewhere, the biggest positive to emerge for Ireland since the November internationals is the competition in the back-line. You’re going to have up to 10 great outside backs, all in good form, in that Irish squad. I’m sure it’s been an interesting training week at Carton House in terms of fellas shaping up to each other — I’d say it’s been heated.
It’s hard to pick the centre pairing as there’s such good competition there. Robbie Henshaw is flying, and I’ve written before about my admiration for Keith Earls. Luke Fitzgerald is on the wing for the Wolfhounds tonight and will be disappointed if he doesn’t start against Italy. He’s just a bloody good rugby player, a likeable, uncomplicated personality, a good communicator and he’s great for the team environment. He believes in his own ability, but he isn’t overly confident.
Joe Schmidt will have noted his performances for Leinster in the number 13 shirt with interest, as that is the hardest position to play in defensively as you have so many decisions to make. After a team has attacked the 10 channel, the 13 is responsible for organising who comes around the corner to defend the next phase, to fill in where the 10, 12 and 7 were on the first phase. He then has a second or two to assess a lot of options — does he control his line speed, or get off the line to shut the move down completely? Should he buy time to ensure he can get his inside defender to make the tackle for him? If he gets it wrong against the likes of Wesley Fofana, it’s a try.
If you’re defending in the opposition team’s half, it’s essentially a 7 v 4 in the backs because the wings and full-back have to drop off and be wary of the kick. Even in your own half, where the full-back can close down the space quicker, there’s nearly always a one-man advantage until you can get the scrum-half and the blindside wing over to help out. The 13 can be dealing with two people there, so his decision-making is crucial.
To that end, the Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll combination was so good because they had that familiarity and trust; they had their own little language. O’Driscoll might be gone but for me, D’Arcy still has plenty to offer at either 12 or 13.
Like Mike Ross at tighthead, D’Arcy has been discounted by some as an option for this Six Nations because he hasn’t played for Leinster in their last two games, which has put him on the back foot. But you can’t discount a fella’s 10-year pedigree; he’s done it at the highest level repeatedly and that will stand to him.
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