In a World Cup year, everything pales in comparison. The Championship win was great, but the lessons it brought are more valuable.
Ireland retained their Six Nations crown in the most emphatic of fashions on Saturday, in what was a compelling day of rugby. Whilst the Grand Slam evaded Joe Schmidt’s men, there is no doubt that this year’s Championship win is a lot more satisfying than last year’s, given the response of the Welsh defeat. Conveying a great sense of character, here are some more things we learnt about Ireland in this year’s Six Nations campaign.
Paul O’Connell Ages like a Fine Wine
In what could have been his last 6 Nations, O’Connell rolled back the years with a series of impressive displays. Whilst Ireland will be disappointed with their result on the eve of O’Connell’s 100th cap, he did himself proud with a fantastic showing. Continuing in the same vein against Scotland, Ireland’s talismanic captain was absolutely excellent.
At the age of 35 O’Connell does not have time on his side, and a good showing in this year’s World Cup may offer him a fairytale ending. Whether the Munster man may tempt fate and stick around beyond that is unknown. Going on recent showings he isn’t finished just yet and still has something to offer. Brad Thorn and Victor Matfield have continued in their later years, could O’Connell follow suit?
In Murray & Sexton We Trust
This tournament initially proved that when Sexton and Murray are on form, Ireland are a difficult side to stop. Controlling the game’s tempo and dictating the pace from pivotal positions, they are the heartbeat of everything the team does. If we were unclear about the reality of that, the Welsh game reminded us just how important they were.
It was not a game either player particularly excelled in, and they’ll have been disappointed with their performances. Uncharacteristic errors, they failed to stamp their authority on the game like we’ve come to expect. Ireland suffered hugely as a result. When Murray and Sexton play well, Ireland play well. If they don’t, Ireland will struggle.
Number 11 Jersey Up for Grabs
Whatever the opinion about Simon Zebo, he proved in this Championship there is more to him than a flash winger who pops up when it suits him. Zebo did not shy away from work, joining more rucks and proving himself more solid in defence than before. He was somewhat unlucky to lose his starting place to Fitzgerald on the final day given he had a good tournament, but the inform Fitzgerald deserved a chance back in the green jersey. Putting in a positive shift in his return, Fitzgerald’s positive performance served as a reminder to the depth we have on that left wing.
Zebo, Fitzgerald, Earls, Gilroy, Trimble and Dave Kearney are but some contesting for the shirt, and all have their own merits. You get the impression that in a team that is very much settled, the one starting position that is really up for grabs is that left wing spot.
While the bench was a last resort under Irish coaches of the past, Joe Schmidt has turned it into a valuable asset. To be able to bring on players of the calibre Ireland have on the bench was a large part of their success in the tournament. Whether it’s the physical presence of Iain Henderson, the carrying of Sean Cronin, or the pace of Ian Madigan, the players benched proved they had an important role to play in the match regardless.
We have depth all in and around the squad, so the importance of the bench is growing. There’s as much emphasis on the numbers 16-23 as there is numbers 1-15, such is the manner of the game. They all have their own role to play when introduced.
There is a ‘Plan B’
The reason for concern over Ireland’s comprehensive dismantling by Wales was largely due to the fact that Ireland were not clinical, and looked troubled in the Welsh 22. Coupled with a phenomenal Welsh defensive effort – important to note how good there defence was – Ireland failed to register a try. Having employed a kicking game in the earlier rounds, once that failed us against Wales, we looked a bit lost.
While coaching Leinster Joe Schmidt played an expansive game of rugby, emphasising attacking excellence. He hasn’t forgotten that overnight, and neither have his players. Against Scotland Ireland needed to score tries and they did. Ireland were more clinical and accurate in what they did, and proved that they can still hurt teams with the ball in hand. There is much more to Ireland than a kicking game, and there is a ‘Plan B’ in Schmidt’s ‘horses for courses’ mentality.
And finally…we’re not Invincible
The loss to Wales could well be the making of this side. It brought every rugby fan and player in the country back down to earth, and was a reminder that we can still be beaten. On an unprecedented winning streak, playing phenomenal rugby, we looked unstoppable. We looked at Grand Slams and World Cups, but were cut down swiftly in our tracks.
A humbling defeat from a superb Wales, it added an extra incentive and edge to the squad. It made the Championship win all that much sweeter, and it will have made the team stronger as a result. We learnt a lesson against Wales, and once you stop learning lessons, then you’re in real trouble.