There was an unusual sense of optimism for Irish fans heading into Saturday’s game with England at Twickenham as Ireland had a chance to finally test out some new players in one of rugby’s greatest cauldrons.
Ireland’s championship hopes hung by a thread, but were by and large effectively over after an opening round draw with Wales followed by a bitterly disappointing defeat away to France. In the likely event that the mathematical probabilities would not lie in Ireland’s favour, the opportunity to ruin England’s Grand Slam aspirations was always going to serve as a worthy consolation prize.
Unfortunately for the Boys in Green, the result didn’t quite go the way that many Irish fans were hoping for as Joe Schmidt’s side slumped to a 21-10 loss and their second consecutive defeat, but the reality was Ireland weren’t too far off where they need to be at this stage in the campaign.
If Robbie Henshaw had capitalised on a brilliant Johnny Sexton break and Josh van der Flier was awarded a try where he was ruled to have been held up, we would most likely be looking at this game in a different light to how many are looking at it now.
However, Ireland remain winless after three games and questions must be raised over Joe Schmidt’s tactics as Ireland continue to defend very narrow and once again struggled at scrum time, particularly after Mike Ross’ departure on 59 minutes.
Neither his replacement Nathan White nor Cian Healy seemed to fare any better in the scrums, much less general play, and we must start looking to alternatives in James Cronin, Kyle McCall and Finlay Bealham off the bench if our scrum issues are to be resolved, as in the current rotation it seems as if the same problems are persisting.
But scrums aside, Ireland have demonstrated a blatant over-dependency on trying to initiate the choke tackle in hope of a turnover, which is great when it works, but too often when it doesn’t, Ireland are left hopelessly short outwide and give up way too many metres as a result.
Yes, you must make sacrifices in every defensive system, but Ireland’s current arrangement too often results in generating a turnover or giving up 10-20 metres in the wider channels, should the opposition manage to make two or three passes wide.
Ireland defended very bravely on the weekend and there was no shortage of effort as they battled a bigger, stronger pack, but against a side like England that generates quick ball and likes to utilise wingers like Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell, it was a big gamble to take and one that certainly fell short of paying off, despite several turnovers.
With that said, what was positive was Ireland’s attitude towards the game and the promotion of youth in a squad that has been quite predictable for sometime now.
With Ireland’s Grand Slam, Championship and Triple Crown hopes all but virtually over, Joe Schmidt finally had an opportunity to blood some new talent into a side that has been very consistent in it’s makeup for several years now.
Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey and Leinster’s Josh van der Flier were both given their first starts in an Irish jersey, while Connacht’s Ultan Dillane staked his claim for a start in Rome next weekend, with a brilliant 20 minute cameo off the bench.
It’s been a long time coming in Irish rugby and the debutantes performances rubbished the claims that Irish rugby lacks strength and depth.
But the positives weren’t just limited to changes in personnel, Ireland looked to attack more and offload, and play positively from areas where they would have usually looked to boot the ball as far down the field as possible.
Whether it was through instruction or through realisation that the tried and tested kick and chase gameplan was not paying the same dividends it had in previous seasons, Ireland were having a go and it was pleasing to see. The Argentina loss in last year’s quarter-final thought us a lot of things, chiefly that the Irish squad was heavily reliant on a number of key players, but injuries aside, the loss thought us that there was a clear gulf in class between the Irish and Argentina players core skills.
If we ever want to claim anything more than a Six Nations championship, we are going to have to promote running rugby as a rugby playing nation and have more optimism in attack than pinning most of our hopes on Andrew Trimble and Rob Kearney catching a high ball.
For the first time all tournament against England, Ireland started to attack more with ball in hand and while the effort wasn’t exactly rewarded with points, it’s a welcome change, as if you’re out of championship contention, why not throw the ball around and see what you’re dealing with.
The defensive structure and the scrum are still a major concern for Ireland and have yet to be addressed, but what should not worry Irish fans is the results. The fact is, we have yet again unearthed another promising backrower in Josh van der Flier, a barnstorming centre in Stuart McCloskey and an uncompromising second rower in Ultan Dillane.
The debutantes speak to the strength and depth of Irish rugby and if we can continue to attack, continue to blood new players into the team and continue to play with ball in hand rather than through the air, the future could yet still be bright for Irish rugby.