An extraordinary day, which showed the sport of rugby in the greatest possible light. After so much dour rugby, and so much talk about how dour the rugby was, and how the odds were stacked against it ever not being dour again, the Six Nations exploded from torpid sludge into kaleidoscopic colour right at the last. It was truly, utterly wonderful, 240 minutes of magic, and if individual test matches could be argued to have been better, it is hard to believe there was ever a rugby day which was so utterly fantastic, heartstoppingly exciting and with so much at stake. Whichever nation you were supporting, and all played their part, it would have been hard not to have been awed by the sheer excitement, but we Irish get to enjoy the deepest satisfaction.
For those lamenting how the laws of the game make it impossible to play rugby, it was a somewhat eye-opening experience. All it took was a few 20+ handicaps and everything we thought we knew about the State of Rugby Today went out the window. Quick ball, space on the field, line-breaks, running at speed, tries, brilliant handling: it was all on show. It makes you wonder if the better teams should play this way more often. After all, it’s always better to beat your opponent by 30 points than by 5. In all sports, it is up to the more talented participants to make their superior skill level count for as much as possible. The same should be true of rugby. Why give a sucker an even break, by allowing yourself to be dragged down to a game of bish and bosh by less talented opponents? But too often that fails to come to pass. Against Italy, Ireland were happy to play Italy at their own game, just with greater accuracy.
One interesting question to ponder is whether Ireland had been playing for a Grand Slam and merely needed to beat Scotland, would they have played this way, and won by so many? Knowing Ireland and what they do for their supporters’ heart rates, probably not. That said, Joe Schmidt talked about the gameplan being to build on the second half against Wales, where Ireland played a more ball-in-hand game and were effective too, outside the Welsh five-metre line at least. This being Joe Schmidt, it’s reasonable to assume he had a plan all along to build Ireland’s running game over the course of the tournament, but that’s a narrative that might be too easy to weld on after the event.
Coming into the tournament, Ireland had several to-dos: bed down the new centre partnership, address other weaknesses in the squad (primarily that the tighthead prop has played every game bar one in this RWC cycle), continue to deliver results, and have the squad and team ready for the RWC. How did we do?
On the first, it’s an A – Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne started all five games together and looked increasingly assured as time went on. Defence was expected to be the biggest concern, for both the new partnership, and for Payne, who has looked leaky at outside centre for Ulster, but in actual fact it was creativity that became the biggest issue. However, as Ireland expanded their gameplan, the centres became increasingly influential – in the second half against Wales, Payne’s footwork and attacking lines caused some problems, and he deservedly scored his first try against the Scots. Henshaw was a contender for Ireland’s player of the tournament – it’s hard to believe he has played more games at inside centre in the last month than he has in the rest of his career.
We spent the tournament calling for Marty Moore to get a start ahead of Mike Ross. Ross himself had a solid championship, but it didn’t really change anything or tell us something we didn’t know – if Moore can scrummage at international level, he becomes the better pick in our opinion. The possibility remains that Ross will not start another frontline game this season, and when we get to the RWC warmups, we will be back in the familiar mantra of “we need to get Ross gametime to get him up to speed”. All of which is true, but still doesn’t change the fact that we are relying on a player who is past his best, and may have fallen off a cliff by August. Again, we feel like a long-playing record, but that doesn’t change the fact that Moore hasn’t started an international yet.
The squad itself was expanded with the likes of Iain Henderson now pushing for a starting slot, and our deep resources at backrow characterized by the impact of Tommy O’Donnell, our 5th choice who has still to nail down a slot in the RWC squad. The backup outhalf issue is still live – Madigan was pretty average off the bench, and himself, Keatley and Wee PJ will all have genuine hopes of going to RWC15, but it’s likely that 25+ of the 31 man squad are already in Joe Schmidt’s mind. We’re in a good place.
The results were obviously excellent, and the championship was won – you can’t ask for much more than that. Even in the game we lost, we did lots of good things, and, to be completely honest, it did no harm for Wales to expose our kick-chase gameplan a little. The reaction was positive, and it set us up well for Murrayfield – it we had lost that game 12-9 in a kick-fest where our tactics were somehow effective, we may not have had the hour of ball-in-hand that set us up for the tilt at the championship. It also might have meant we wouldn’t have needed to listen for a week for sore-losery whining about Barnesy with highly-selective videos doing the rounds – the world would be a better place if the Irish accepted defeat in a more magnanimous fashion.
Wales helped in Rome too, for there can be no question that having to win by over 20 points amounted to a throwing off of the shackles. Ireland simply had no choice but to throw caution to the wind. And in doing so they were sensational. Murray and Sexton controlled the game, the backrow rampaged, O’Connell was his usual self and the introduction of Healy and Fitzgerald seemed to galvanise the team. Healy’s selection was questioned in a lot of quarters, but it’s the sort of call that Schmidt has a habit of getting right.
And in both the post-match interview and the celebrations, Schmidt once again managed to hit every right note, even going so far as to say he ‘wished [he] could say [he] had anything to do with [winning the Championship]’. It was all terribly Declan Kidney, who also had the ability to be exceptionally humble in winning circumstances.
It seems highly improbable that this day will act as a tipping-point in the grander scheme of things. Will the coaches involved suddenly decide to throw the ball around like confetti from now on? Hardly. The World Cup takes place later this year, and chances are it will be like the last two: starting well enough, before the rugby gets tighter and tighter, and sludgier and sludgier as we get closer to the final. Saturday served as a reminder of how great the game can be, and why we all fell in love with it in the first place, but chances are it will go down in history as a weird anomaly, a day when the stars aligned to produce something extraordinary. It was a day that’s hard to apply cold hard analysis to. Why look for patterns and themes that will never be repeated? Its like may never be seen again; all the more reason to allow yourself to bathe in its spine-tingling magnificence all the longer.