Twenty-fourteen, eh? It feels a long way from Frankie’s annual “Grand Slam” prediction [Aside: remember Glenn McGrath used to predict a 5-0 Australia victory in every Ashes series? Not sure if Glenn McGrath was ever Steven Smith’s agent, mind] – a chastening series last year saw Ireland lose to Scotland and Italy, and avoid the wooden spoon only on points difference from France. The series was catastrophic, with virtually everything that could go wrong going wrong. For once, expectations seem realistic, with the trophy-laden mid-00’s a distant memory. We can recall in 2010 how a Triple Crown was being sniffed at ahead of our last game against Scotland – which we promptly lost. You never know when it might come back, and we’d gladly take one this year.
Before we go into too much detail about Ireland’s prospects this year, there are a couple of things it is worthwhile to consider:
- Last year, Ireland finished 5th in the log, and missed out on the wooden spoon only on points difference. But this doesn’t represent Ireland’s real level – they hadn’t finished lower than 3rd since the Five turned Six – and the players remain competitive at HEC level. Last year was a complete bust, the coach was a busted flush who had lost the confidence of swathes of the dressing room, and the campaign was an unmitigated disaster – it’s safe to write it off as a uniquely poor year
- Joe Schmidt is an excellent coach. In Leinster, he developed a team based on ruthlessness, accuracy and adventure that dominated Europe for three years. The big question is, can that success be transferred to international level where he has less time with his players, higher quality of opponent (sometimes, at least) and no Zebras or Cardiff to fill your boots against. But we will say this with confidence – he has a track record that is superior to Philip Saint-Andre, Stuart Lancaster, Jacques Brunel and Scott Johnson. And in time, he might have one better than Gatty as well
If Gerry’s “guess” at Sunday’s team is correct, and it ususally is – with the glaring exception of RWC11, when Fangio got Uncle Deccie’s exclusives – one thing more than any stands out, that the days of the same XV starting every game are behind us. Competition for places is here, and this week’s beneficiaries are Matinee Idol Andrew Trimble and Luke ‘Bamm-Bamm’ Marshall. The infamous Monday Morning Huddle-Ups will doubtless mean bigger names than Ferg and Dorce will be disappointed over the course of the next six weeks. This is Ireland like we haven’t known them in a long time.
The fixtures are generous to Ireland as well – a gentle beginning at home to Scotland, followed by a date everyone has ringed in the calendar for months – a chance to beat those pesky Welsh. Ireland lost to Scotland last year after a comedy of errors, and, despite last year’s win, probably still feel they owe the Welsh one – particularly after that happened between that listing legend and that taciturn Kiwi in the summer.
Ireland’s major problems have been gameplan, accuracy, consistency and selection. Our attacking has been anaemic for many years now, our error count off the charts [rumble for 1m, rumble for 0.5m, three drifting sideways passes for -2m, rumble – knock on], and injury was our best selector. The new coaching ticket showed signs of creeping accuracy in November, and the days of picking the same XV for every game are in the past. If we can develop that elusive consistency and a coherent attacking strategy, you feel Ireland will go from perennial third-placers (excepting that blip of last year) to something better.
It’s important that Ireland establish a base level of performance on days when they don’t have waves of emotion on which to draw. They can’t be expected to play as well as against New Zealand, but it’s important the performance level doesn’t falll off a cliff-face as soon as we’re favourite to win a match.
If Ireland do start with two wins, they’ll have the Big Mo, and that can be crucial in this tournament. If they win two, they can win another two – Italy are a gimme, then England look strong but unimaginative and France are a coin toss. With some confidence and coherence, we are surely capable of winning one of them. All of which might just put us in the mix. But to flip it over: lose to Wales and suddenly Twickenham looks a daunting trip and we’re staring down being one from three and becoming grumpy and despondent. So much hinges on that Wales game in the second round. The hell with accuracy, let’s get emotional! Jamie and BOD: give Wazza hell!
Schmidt has publicly stated that
sure aren’t we lucky to have both Rog and Johnny second place is his minimum requirement, and four wins are typically required to get it. We aren’t sure if we are there yet, but we expect to see a tight, accurate and ruthless team by St Patrick’s Day. With a foundation in place for RWC15.