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What, asked someone as Munster lumbered last month to an unconvincing Heineken Cup victory over Harlequins at Twickenham, would happen if you could combine their forwards with Leinster's backs?

The question was posed in the context of the Heineken, where Munster have lacked the attacking variation and Leinster the weight and power to take the trophy. But there is, of course, an answer in another context. Put the two together and you get Ireland.

The equation is not an exact one. The all-Leinster three-quarter line that will start their Six Nations campaign against Italy in Rome tomorrow is supplemented by Munster's half-backs and Leicester's dashing full-back Geordan Murphy. Four Munstermen in the pack have the support of a trio from Leinster and, with typically Irish inclusiveness, a Yorkshireman who plays for Llanelli (Simon Easterby).

But it is on the binding of these two elements that Ireland will base this year's challenge. Ulster's sole representative is replacement outside-half David Humphreys while Connachtmen lost out when Jonny O'Connor was beaten to the open-side flank by Munsterman Denis Leamy.

Expectations have not been higher since the four seasons between 1948 and 1951 when Jack Kyle and compadres delivered three championships and, in 1948, Ireland's only grand slam. A poll on one English-based website found 46 per cent tipping Ireland as this year's champions.

It is customary to point out that Ireland are never less comfortable than when favourites. Recent reality is that Scotland are more prone to miserable collapse as favourites and spectacular triumph when deemed no-hopers, but no depiction of any aspect of Irish life is complete without some overworked cliché.

Yet instead of ducking their favoured status, Ireland are embracing it - captain Brian O'Driscoll pointing to it as a tribute to their evident improvement in recent years. And while there's an element of default - England and France look weaker than in recent seasons, and both must visit Lansdowne Road - he is right. Ireland have begun to see off rugby's big beasts. They defeated Australia and South Africa in the autumn internationals and beat England so conclusively at Twickenham last season that, as Sir Clive Woodward to his great credit acknowledged, the main mystery was that the world champions only lost by six points.

There is genuine depth to the squad. Even the best Irish teams of the past were short of quality in two or three positions, with journeymen accompanying immortals such as Kyle, Fergus Slattery and Mike Gibson. This team has no glaring weakness. Instead it has the best lock and centre pairings in the championship, the half-backs best attuned to each other's play and, amid the carnage afflicting flankers across the whole tournament, probably the best choice of fit back-rowers.

Still more compelling is the quality of those who will not be starting in Rome. Donncha O'Callaghan would be first choice, never mind a starter, at lock for any of the other five nations. Outside-half Humphreys is Ireland's record points scorer in the championship while O'Connor, the best open side in the English Premiership for most of last year, cannot even get on the bench.

There are areas of concern. Three players will occasion particular worry should they be injured: scrum-half Peter Stringer and prop John Hayes because of limited cover and O'Driscoll for the simple reason that losing him would seriously diminish any team in the world.

Coach Eddie O'Sullivan argues that compressing the championship into seven weekends favours France and England, with their deeper player pools, and will hope that the comparative luck enjoyed last season holds again. He also points out that Italy are well capable of tripping the unwary in Rome, while it is less than four years since Scotland - to be visited next Saturday - negated Ireland's last serious grand-slam bid.

Those obstacles must be surmounted before they even think about the back-to-back visits by England and France to Lansdowne Road on which, if all goes well, the season should turn. Come through that lot unscathed and there is still Wales, potentially resurgent under a coach, Mike Ruddock, with inside knowledge of the Irish scene, to be dealt with on the final day.

An Irish championship would be popular far beyond the wearers of the green. They have done the competition a service. While it was selfish, short-sighted and ahistorical for elements in the French, and in particular the English, unions to hanker after discarding the Celts around the turn of the millennium, those adjectives pretty much describe the mood of the times. The Celts, and enlightened elements in England and France, needed a countervailing force to reinforce their arguments. Ireland supplied it. Having saved the Six Nations, it is time they won it.

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