Six Nations Signs Off, Carney Signs On
It's been exhausting just watching it - can you imagine how the players feel?
For Ireland the normally intense Six Nations has had lashings and lashings of extra significance poured over it this year, whether it be the Croke Park melodrama, the Grand Slam chatter or the looming World Cup. The tournament has been utterly captivating, more so than ever perhaps, but after every game I feel like I've just come out of a ruck with Nathan Hines. A sleepy Magners League evening at the Sportsgrounds will be just the ticket after all this stress.
But once more unto the breach we go, and Ireland in with chance of the title on the last day. The sporting integrity of the tournament's climax is seriously wonky however, with France being able to quantify exactly what they need to do to retain the championship before they take the field against Scotland. Television dictates that all matches will be broadcast, so the simultaneous playing of thefinal games cannot happen, but at the risk of souring the grapes before they're even plucked from the vine, it's just not fair.
Of course Ireland first have to actually beat Italy, thoughts of hefty points totals being unwise against a team who, the opening weekend apart, have had a great tournament so far. Ireland will always toil against the Italians, whose powerful pack love to rough up their green-shirted equivalents.
Both packs will be missing talismanic figures, in Ireland's case the inspiration of Paul O'Connell and in Italy's their multi-functional flanker, Mauro Bergamasco. O'Connell's loss to Ireland is unquantifiable, given that Ireland's only convincing performance of the tournament was also the only one in which O'Connell played to his own celestial standards.
But Bergamasco's absence will hit Italy just as hard. He is one of their few genuinely top class talents, and is absolutely key to getting his team moving with the generous portion of ball their pack generally win. Without him they will still be strong up front, but their actual threat to Ireland's line is severely diminished.
Ireland's try-scoring threat is usually one of their best features, but was strangely blunt at Murrayfield. A back-line which is usually breathlessly fluid was notable for more clumsy fumbling than the back wall of a teenage disco.
The Scotland game also highlighted question marks over Ireland's lack of a genuine finisher. Denis Hickie's tackle on Chris Paterson in the first half, after which he sprang to his feet and turned the ball over, was one of the few moments of excellence displayed last Saturday. But the Leinster winger isn't a world-class finisher anymore, injuries and age having robbed him of the necessary explosiveness, as was demonstrated in the second half at Murrayfield.
Enter Brian Carney. Is it utterly fanciful to speculate that Munster new signing is not just intended to boost the province's Heineken Cup bid, but also as another prospective big gun for the Irish back line?
Although Munster supporters have been on tenterhooks all week since the rumours of the former Great Britain rugby league star's imminent signature started, there's been plenty of caution in the red ranks too. After being burned before with Christian Cullen, whose injuries have prevented him from ever displaying the awesome talent of his youth in a Munster jersey, scepticism is understandable. After all, Carney is 30 years old and has only one day of pre-season training in six months behind him.
But there is no doubt that Carney is the real deal, a top class league player who scored 16 tries in 26 NRL games in Australia (the sport's strongest competition) on top of his earlier successes with Wigan. Also, as a winger, he plays in the position most suited to an easy transition to union, Jason Robinson and Wendell Sailor being the proof of that.
It seems a monumental ask to expect Carney to descend fully-formed into Munster and Ireland's massive battles of the next months, but his pedigree suggests he has a chance.