Leinster have decided against appealing the three-game ban given to front-row Jack McGrath at a disciplinary hearing last Wednesday. Initially, the Irishman was given a five-week suspension; however, this was reduced to three games after the committee reviewed his previously untarnished record and took his exemplary conduct during the hearing into account.
Les Bleus have already been without the Dublin-born player for their Pro12 encounter with Cardiff at the weekend (which they won) and the more recent 50-8 defeat of Castres in the European Champions Cup, while McGrath will also miss Leinster's clash with Wasps next week.
His absence from the field could spell positive news for the national team, though, as McGrath’s period on the sidelines will end on the 25th January. This will see him become eligible for Ireland’s opening game of the Six Nations against Italy at the Stadio Olimpico on 7th February. Whether Leinster head coach, Matt O’Connor, took this into consideration when deliberating his decision is unclear; however it is unlikely as the club were expected to make an appeal shortly after the announcement was made – which makes this news all the more interesting with it coming a week after the hearing.
Whatever the case may be, Ireland will benefit from having a fresh McGrath heading into the defence of their Six Nations crown. And although the Leinster man has only 12 caps to his name so far, his man-of-the-match debut performance against Samoa in 2013 proves that he has more than the mettle required from a member of the Ireland team.
Italy could be considered by many as a straight-forward opening opponent for the Irish in the Six Nations, such is their disastrous record in the competition. That said, the Irish contingent should be careful not to overlook the impact the Azzurri’s four uncapped call-ups could have on the match. Ireland are currently second favourites to win this latest edition of the Six Nations tournament in the outright market with betfair - at a price of 7/4 - so it will be interesting to see how they handle the Italians to start their campaign.
Those soon-to-be capped players named by Italy coach Jacques Brunel come in the form of centre Giulio Bisegni and his Zebre teammate wing Michele Visentin, the Rugby Calvisano scrum-half Marcellon Violi and Benetton Treviso winger Simone Ragusi.
Bisegni, Visentin and Violi are being called up to the squad for the first time, while Ragusi has been named in previous teams but is yet to take to the field for his country.
These additions to the Italian team have come as a surprise to most people, but Brunel has made it clear in recent press conferences that selection in this competition provides the platform to shine on a grand stage in the year of a rugby world cup.
Italy may have endured a dismal time in the competition since joining in 2000, including defeat in every game of their 2014 campaign, but they did enjoy a victorious afternoon against the Irish last time the teams met – something Ireland captain, Paul O’Connell, will be well aware of.
Ireland, of course, won last year’s Six Nations, thanks in part to an emotional and dramatic final weekend win over France in Paris. That day saw Ireland put the ghosts of 2013’s unremarkable campaign to bed but it also signalled the final whistle on inspirational leader Brian O'Driscoll’s career. His presence will surely be sorely missed and, speaking ahead of the tournament’s start, O’Connell said that a successful retention of the trophy will be no easy task for a number of other reasons, too.
First of all, the Emerald Islanders will be singled out by all opponents as the team to beat, especially by England – the team they pipped to the post in 2014.
Secondly, O’Connell believes that all teams have improved since last year’s outings. Although the Irish have shown that their game has also advanced, the captain understands that anything below their best in any of the five fixtures might not be enough to maintain a firm grip on the cup.
Finally, as mentioned, we’re in the year of a World Cup and with just eight months left for all players to show their worth to team coaches, a sterling showing at the Six Nations would do their chances of place in the squad no harm at all.
Of course, Ireland will be amongst those hoping for a long-run to the latter stages of the World Cup but right now there’s the Six Nations to think about and it would feel a little remiss to glaze over that final weekend in Paris and its significance.
Going into the game we knew that O’Driscoll would be hanging up his boots at the final whistle and, for the services he had provided the national team with over the years, he would leave as a legend. The only uncertainty was whether his last game would end in Six Nations triumph, as it had with the historic Grand Slam of 2009 – ending a 61-year period without such a feat for the Irish.
Tension, drama and, finally, exultation – that afternoon in the Stade de France had it all. How fitting it was that, with a world record 141 Test caps and 26 Six Nations tries (the tournament’s highest ever) to his name, O’Driscoll brought to a close an exemplary career on the same ground he burst onto the scene 14 years prior, with a hat-trick against the French. And although his final match didn’t bring with it the same flurry of tries, Ireland’s hero put in a shift that wasn’t so much as a shade below the preeminent standard he himself has set over the years.
That match set a record for the year, with 891,000 people across Ireland tuning in to watch history unfold – beating the Fifa World Cup Final in Brazil and the All Ireland Football Final between Kerry and Donegal into second and third place respectively. The last game of this RBS Championship might not draw such numbers but, as ever, the 2015 Six Nations undoubtedly promises to be two months’ worth of viewing any rugby fan simply cannot afford to miss.