With Ireland recording a crucial 19-9 Six Nations victory over England this weekend, Brian Barry discusses five alternative talking points from the clash at the Aviva Stadium.
5. Second phase failure
It is part of the Joe Schmidt blueprint to keep things tight, stick to the plan, and take scoring chances when they arise. This does not always guarantee tries.
A cardinal error under the Schmidt regime is to make simple mistakes, or cough up possession. This game-plan relies on the hard work of players. If one player gives away the ball too easily, this undermines the graft of his 14 colleagues.
So in theory, when Ireland move through phases, there is a huge emphasis on ball retention, and clean recycling. Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne have come in for much criticism for their attacking aptitude, or lack thereof.
Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo are not enjoying as much possession as they were in the Declan Kidney era. But the centre partnership are under strict orders not to open up the field unless there is sufficient support, or a hole in the opposition defence.
Yesterday, the Irish backline looked genuinely threatening on the first phase, be it off a set-piece or a turnover. However, for fear of opening the game up, and facilitating the powerful English backs, things were kept tight in the second phase.
Is this a worry? Ten consecutive test wins gives you the answer. This merely responds to the calls that Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw lack a cutting edge in attack.
4. Rory Best – unsung hero
The consensus before the game was that if Ireland held their own at scrum-time, they would win the game. This concern grew out of the demolition of the Leinster pack by Harlequins in the European Challenge Cup.
Surely Mike Ross could not turn it around following Joe Marler’s dominance in January? The Cork-born tight-head prop proved his doubters wrong, but perhaps we must question what was different this time around.
The presence of Rory Best settled the Irish front row. The Ulster captain is an elite scrummager, recognising that hooking the ball is not his sole responsibility at the set-piece.
At the line-out, Best was immense. He found his man on every throw. The only time Ireland did not gain clean ball from a Best throw was when Devin Toner fumbled what should have been an easy catch in the second half.
It was an easy decision to award Robbie Henshaw with Man of the Match, but Rory Best was the real hero yesterday.
3. Do Ireland truly have an impact bench?
In the build-up to recent games, the Irish bench has been lauded for possessing substitutes who can make a real impact on a game when introduced. Yesterday, this myth was dispelled for now.
Jonny Sexton was called ashore on 54 minutes, prompting the introduction of Ian Madigan. Deprived of game-time recently at ten, it was not Madigan’s finest performance.
As a big fan of Madigan, this writer was simply disappointed by the 25 year-old’s performance yesterday. Without trying to be overly critical, his introduction took the sting out of the Irish attack, while his tactical kicking was wasteful at best.
When brought on for Mike Ross 57 minutes, Marty Moore struggled to inspire immediately. Granted, he was thrown into a fiercely competitive scrum for his first play of the game, but nonetheless he conceded a penalty converted by George Ford.
Ultimately, the three points conceded were not costly, but it can be no excuse for a sub prop at this level to concede a penalty in such an area, regardless whether or not he just came on.
Elsewhere, Tommy O’Donnell’s stock further rose, as he provided ample cover for the injured Sean O’Brien. Cian Healy took a hard knock, but was impressive on his steady return from injury.
2. Why are Wales being written off?
‘It’s Ireland’s Grand Slam to lose’ was the sentiment in the immediate aftermath of the game. All week, Ireland vs England was billed as the Six Nations decider. Ireland have won, and thus assume pole position. But a bigger test lies ahead in two weeks, in the form of a trip to Cardiff.
Two years ago, Ireland beat the Welsh on the opening weekend in the Millenium Stadium. They fell to the English a week later in Dublin, and it seemed like England had the title in the bag. But Wales quietly went about their business, winning three games on the trot, before pouncing on Stuart Lancaster’s side to deny them not only the Grand Slam, but the championship.
Wales have again been written off following their opening night capitulation at the hands of the English. But their fate is back in their own hands, and they will be favourites when Ireland come to town in two weeks.
This Welsh team have not gone away, and the Welsh backbone which guided the Lions to victory in Australia two years ago are still very much in their prime.
The Welsh showed what they are capable of with a hard-fought victory in Paris on Saturday, and will be confident of stopping this in-form Irish side in their tracks.
1. In Joe we trust
While there may be a feeling that this article is overly pessimistic considering an emphatic display, it is a testament to how Ireland are playing under Joe Schmidt at present. Any opposition that Ireland have faced, Schmidt has been more than equal to the task, and has devised a game-plan to exploit their weaknesses.
Ten test victories in a row make for happy reading. The only side in world rugby which hasn’t succumbed to the Schmidt revolution is his native New Zealand.
The world’s finest teams have come to Dublin this past twelve months and have all been sent packing. But can we do it away? Cardiff in two weeks time will be a solid barometer.
Brian Barry, Pundit Arena
Featured image By Hoops341 (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.