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Ireland’s disappointing defeat to England on the opening weekend of the Six Nations may yet prove a blessing in disguise.
Even before a ball was kicked in anger it was touted as being one of the most even Six Nations in years. Ireland were the favourites in the build-up on the back of their 2018 heroics, but only just. Italy aside, there was plenty being said about the other teams too. We know England are always dangerous, Scotland have been bubbling under for a couple of years now and Wales were unbeaten in ten games heading into the tournament etc. etc…...
There was something else that had to be considered as well – it’s world cup year and there is no underestimating the importance of laying down a marker to the opposition. Or is there? The hype surrounding England just two games in is in danger of becoming unhealthy already. Think back to 2015 when the then-hosts were touted to carry all before them only to fail to get out of their pool following defeats to Wales and Australia.
Eddie Jones needs to manage things very carefully from here on in if he is not to suffer a similar fate in 2019 – it’s not that long ago that England supporters were booing their own side during a decidedly indifferent Six Nations campaign. For those with short memories, it was less than twelve months ago. And managing things carefully means more than just making disingenuous comments about the opposition. People will see through that pretty quickly, Eddie. Look after your own squad and allow other managers/head coaches the courtesy to do likewise. Otherwise, it’s just meaningless guttersnipe and the game deserves better than that. If you are going to win the Six Nations this year, it would be nice to win it with a bit of class…….
They are by no means out of it yet, but it’s been a disappointing campaign for Ireland so far, with defeat to England on the opening day followed by a patchy 22-13 win over Scotland last weekend. Perhaps the most surprising element of all, though, is how quickly Irish confidence has been dashed. England (and Jerome Garces) caught us on the hop in the first game. It’s the kind of thing that happens all the time in sport. Add to that the fact that we are notoriously slow starters in tournaments and perhaps it wasn’t quite the surprise we took it to be.
What is a surprise, however, is how badly it knocked us off our stride. A week later and we still had not recovered and it showed. A week is a long time in professional sport. We need to bounce back more quickly than that, particularly if we suffer an early setback in Japan.
We have shipped a number of injuries in key positions which hasn’t helped, but the form of certain players in the opening two games has been disappointing too. Conor Murray, the best scrum-half on the planet on his day, hasn’t been at his best with a litany of stray passes and loose box-kicks. Do we need to find a Plan B alternative to the box-kick, particularly in games where it isn’t having the desired effect? Opposing teams have cottoned on to what we are doing and have learned to counter it by blocking off runners which, admittedly, can make a decent kick look quite ordinary at times. We need another option. Also, Keith Earls, a great attacking threat with ball in hand, isn’t as effective in the air as we need him to be if we are to persevere with this tactic.
Robbie Henshaw’s sojourn at full-back was not a success and the sooner he gets back to doing what he does best at inside centre the better. With his exceptional reading of the game, Rob Kearney’s performance at Murrayfield showed how badly he was missed in the opener against England.
There are other areas of concern too. The punishment being administered to Jonathan Sexton in game after game makes it difficult for him to last the full 80 minutes which means we need battle-hardened replacements to step into the breach. After a faltering start, Joey Carbery did well at Murrayfield, but he is still some way off being a ready-made substitute for the World Player of the Year. It is important for him to get as much game time as possible ahead of the World Cup. However, the reality is that we lose something when Sexton is not on the pitch.
The performance at Murrayfield was undoubtedly disjointed and error-strewn – a far cry from the Ireland who tore through the All Blacks in November. It’s clear the England result and the nature of it had a profound effect on the squad, but at least we did enough to negate the Scottish threat and fully deserved to win the game in the end. It wasn’t vintage stuff but, for now, we’ll take it.
With games against Italy and a bedraggled France to come, it gives us the opportunity to play ourselves back into form before heading to Cardiff for the championship closer against Wales. And who’s to say that we won’t still be in with an outside sniff of retaining the title on March 16th? A long shot but, if Wales manage to beat England on Saturday week, you never know!
But the important thing really is what happens after that. Looking ahead at the wider picture, could it be that the defeat to England is actually a blessing in disguise? It’s never nice to lose a competitive game – particularly to England – but maybe it has given us the wake-up call we needed. Perhaps the massive success we enjoyed last year with a grand slam, a series win in Australia and victory over the All Blacks in Dublin had lulled us into a false sense of security and we were guilty of drifting blindly towards a fall. Maybe we needed this? The hurt of our defeat to Argentina in the quarter-finals four years ago still looms large in the memory. It would be a horrible thing to have to go through that again, so maybe it was better to suffer a rude awakening now rather than at the World Cup?
The test of any great coach and, indeed, great team is how they respond to adversity. The first two games of the Six Nations have undoubtedly given Joe Schmidt and his coaching team plenty of food for thought. Injuries have given him a chance to give certain squad members more game time which should pay dividends in the big matches to come. It will also allow him to revisit certain line-ups and game strategies to see where improvements can be made. He is a proven coach of the highest calibre who has developed the current crop of players into the best team in Ireland’s history and there is no doubt that he will take whatever lessons are on offer from the last two weeks and use them to Ireland’s advantage ahead of the challenges to come later in the year.
Ok, so no grand slam this year, but you can’t have everything. There is an even bigger prize in play this year.
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