Debrief

So that’s that for another year.  England won, Ireland fell to third with just two wins and the world has finally stopped believing that France are unpredictable, maverick or even remotely decent.  Wales gave Ireland and England too big a headstart, and Scotland again flattered to deceive.  Italy were wretched.

All in all, it was a modest enough championship.  The business of deciding a winner was wrapped up a week in advance and the only drama in the last week was seeing whether England could secure a grand slam.  France were game, but ultimately not good enough, and the result was never really in doubt.

The rugby wasn’t as bad as feared.  The early rounds were diabolical, certainly.  The Ireland v France match was one of the most boring test matches on record, and it seemed appropriate that it should be effectively decided by a 10 minute scrum.  Wales v France wasn’t much better, and Scotland v England also stank the house out.  But thereafter, things improved.  England and Ireland played out an entertaining match, and Ireland looked to vary their game a bit more in the final two rounds, while England’s tussles with Wales and France weren’t too hard on the eye either.  It wasn’t quite the spirit of the World Cup, but it was better than in many recent seasons.

It can’t be entirely coincidental that the better games took place in March when the weather was a bit better.  February tends to be a dire month weather-wise, and if a single tweak was to be made to the rugby calendar, we would suggest a bold move in pushing back the start of the Six Nations by four weeks.  We don’t expect any such thing to happen, of course, as the tournament seems to be a commercial lock-down no matter how turgid the spectacle on offer, and the powers that be tend to be reluctant to change anything.

The Guardian surmised that with the ‘emergence’ of Billy Vunipola and a collection of high quality halfbacks, the Lions in 2017 will fancy they can beat New Zealand, but such expectations appear laughable.  The summer tour will reveal much.  There has been no new evidence that the Northern Hemisphere have come close to bridging the divide to the far more dynamic southern nations, and no amount of Eddie Jones talking up a 3-0 whitewash of Australia will change that.  Jones bullishness is great in so far as it goes, but talk is cheap, actions will be required, and such an outcome looks unlikely.  Last we checked Michael Cheika was still in situ down under.

Indeed, the fact that England could turn their World Cup disaster on its head with such apparent smoothness almost degrades the competition.  From laughing stock to European champions?  They didn’t even change much on the pitch, as the squad was still largely the same as that over which Lancaster presided.  Come on down Chris Robshaw and James Haskell, the tournament’s pre-eminent six-and-a-halves.  Who needs Armitage anyway?  But it’s worth remembering that Lancaster’s tenure wasn’t a total waste of time, and that his England team had gone close to winning the championship twice in his tenure.  They just lost their way in the big one.  All they needed was a bit of clarity of purpose – which they entirely lacked in the World Cup – and an injection of a bit of the old dog to set them back on the right path.

And what about Ireland?  Well, it was a middling championship in every sense of the word.  Third place, two wins, two losses and a draw.  Beating England in Twickenham always looked a tall order, but they must surely regret the game in Paris.  Even Scotland beat this utterly abject French side, and Ireland had enough chances to put them away, but couldn’t land the killer blow.  It was a performance symptomatic of their worst ills under Schmidt; lacking imagination, trying to barrage their way over the line using one out rumbles, and unwilling to pass out of the tackle.  It was a rubbish performance in a rubbish match.

Some of the selections were a bit iffy, and while it might be churlish to complain after a campaign in which five Irish players debuted, the sight of Fergus McFadden trundling into the fray instead of Stuart McCloskey was dispiriting.  It appears that for all McCloskey’s superb Ulster form, Schmidt doesn’t quite trust him.

Oddly enough, the last two games, from which he left out the country’s best offloader out of the panel altogether, were the ones in which Ireland did look to offload the ball, at least more than usual (i.e. at least once).  But it’s all well and good playing that way against Scotland and Italy when the championship is over, and quite another doing it when the games are clutch and against better opponents.  It feels a bit like Schmidt has wrung as much as he can out of his current template and a major evolution is required to get Ireland back to the pointy end of things.  It would be foolish to underestimate his ability to deliver the goods.  At Leinster, he changed the team from being an offloading side in his first season to one which didn’t offload but passed aggressively on the gainline in his second.  He won the Heineken Cup on both occasions.

One such advancement is surely on the way on the defensive side of things.  Ireland have become leaky without the ball, frequently too narrow and prone to soaking metres and tries out wide, and Andy Farrell’s arrival cannot come soon enough.  With Farrell comes the possibility that Ireland will completely change how they defend – possibly bringing something more like England and Wales’ hard-up approach to defending.  It has got to be worth a look.  The tour to South Africa is daunting but they have problems of their own.  They lack a coach and a fly half – two pretty important things – and while the summer tour is often a ‘last men standing’ affair, the prospect of Henderson, O’Brien, O’Mahony and others returning from injury means Ireland could be heading down there in better health than was the case in either the World Cup or the Six Nations.

Sure We Know What He Can Do

Ireland today announced their team to play Six Nations powerhouse Italy, and it’s a pretty deflating selection in the backline for those of us who thought we might see some fresh faces during this campaign. For the Italy match is “must-win”, as it should be – Ireland should always beat Italy, to be frank. But with that line of thinking, so is the Scotland game, for it will be necessary to win to avoid finishing fifth – and that’s no time to be changing faces.

One can be certain that we will defend well, and that we will not lose – and one can only hope that the accuracy and delivery that the players feel is within grasp can be delivered and we win handsomely as opposed to falling over the line. Something like England’s performance vs Italy, and not the French one.

While Henshaw-Payne has been our first choice centre partnership, and is the defensive bedrock of the team, the enforced absence of Rob Kearney seemed like an opportunity to leave the centres as they were against England and select Payne at 15, the position in which he has performed best at Ulster. Stuart McCloskey had a promising debut with ball in hand, and one would have hoped the Italians would be easier meat than England – whatever about George Ford being roadkill, imagine a panting Kelly Haimona (sorry) when he runs out of gas after 10 minutes. Still, Henshaw-Payne is at least defensible.

On the other hand, Simon Zebo at full-back and McFadden on the bench are respectively confusing and mystifying. Zebo has clearly established himself as Schmidt’s second choice in the position at this point, but he has yet to show much aptitude for the position and has barely played there for Munster. He is a player that we should have on the team, but probably for a misfiring and slowing Andrew Trimble, not (effectively) for McCloskey. And Ferg has simply offered nothing this season, either for Leinster or in his extended cameo against France, to suggest he can contribute.

With Ian Madigan again selected on the bench, Paddy Jackson is unlikely to get a look-in this tournament, despite being virtually certain to be second-choice when Mad-dog decamps to Bordeaux this summer. Although at least we’ll get to see what Kieran Marmion can do.

To turn the oft-repeated mantra about the energy new kids bring on its head, we can only hope the return of familiar faces doesn’t portend a return to the tired and supine performance we saw in Paris. But thankfully this is Italy, and we will win – but it feels like an opportunity missed.

Ireland: Zeebs; Trimble, Payne, Henshaw, Earls; Sexton, Murray; McGrath, Besty, Ross; Ryan, Toner; Stander, van der Flier, Heaslip. Subs: Strauss, Healy, White, Dillane, Ruddock, Marmion, Madigan, McFadden

The Brink of Disaster

Ireland’s Six Nations campaign has been described this week as “teetering on the brink of utter failure” (Cummiskey) and that we “need victories against Italy and Scotland to avoid a disastrous campaign” (Dorce). The second point is moot, since any year we lose to Italy it is disastrous anyway, but is the first true?

While missing Ross, Healy, Henderson, O’Mahony, O’Brien, Fitzgerald and Bowe, we drew at home to Wales, a team who we fancied to win the Six Nations, and the only Northern Hemisphere team have a successful RWC. The defeat to France was an awful spectacle and put our inability to score in lights. But then we went to Twickenham, and played quite well – we had three debutants (two starting), all of whom made big impressions – and with a little bit more composure in their 22 it could easily have been closer.

Stu McCloskey was dangerous with ball in hand, van der Flier started quietly, but grew into the game, finished strongly and should really have had a try had Ultan Dillane fixed Anger’s Mike Brown. Dillane himself was like Iain Henderson off the bench, an utter wrecking ball with huge carrying impact  – the English clearly hadn’t seen much of Connacht and were unaware that Irish forwards can occasionally run into space. Three successful debutants and, in reality, only only match point less than we expected at this point in the Championship. The defeat against France was grim, but potentially we could learn some lessons from it. Like the need to expand our attack maybe.

So, utter failure? Well, if we lose to Italy, it sure is, but that’s the case every year. It feels to us that, like a manic depressive, we have swung wildly across the spectrum of “we are going to win the World Cup” in September to “we have to make sure we beat Italy or it’s an UTTER FAILURE” in March. We are talking ourselves into a corner painting Italy as this must-win game – I mean it clearly must be won, but there is no doubt that it will be won. We could rest Ross (the Italy scrum got mullered against Scotland), Ryan (Dillane is hardly much of a step down anyway), Heaslip (Stander to 8 and Ruddock at 6), Sexton (Jackson in) and Payne (on the bench in case of emergencies) and probably still win easily. On the official Irish Rugby YouTube channel, Heaslip tried manfully to talk up Italy, but really didn’t do well, eventually stuttering to allow that it was a “pretty dark changing room” after the 2013 defeat.

In the event, it looks like we are going to revert to Plan A – stout defence and kick-ball – fit-again Jared Payne is likely to come back in at centre, with Henshaw going back to inside centre and Simon Zebo starting his second Six Nations game at full-back. Is this really the correct approach? Sure, McCloskey got panned by Schmidt for his offload in the third quarter, and is undoubtedly raw, particularly in his positioning, but it’s hard to argue he wasn’t effective – without a huge amount of sympathy from some of his teammates (the hospital pass from Kearney for example). We also have to ask about how we are going to score tries – against England we looked at our most effective in the third quarter when McCloskey and Earls were the focal points of our attack, hunting for space and creating go-forward ball – surely it’s worth another look? And we haven’t even got into the Payne-to-15 argument, but apparently, even with Rob Kearney most likely injured it is Simon Zebo and not Jared Payne that is being pencilled in for the 15 shirt.

Zebo’s return to the XV is welcome, because he brings pace that we are in dire need of in the backline, but a better backline might have had Zebo on the wing in place of Andrew Trimble, who has been ineffective in his first three matches, allowing for Payne at 15 and The Big Fella at 12. Admittedly, one of Italy’s few strengths is the Garcia-Campagnaro centre partnership, but if we were happy with McCloskey-Henshaw facing Farrell-Joseph, do we really think they can’t handle the Italians? Italy are a team that you can whack and bag early on, particularly at home – it doesn’t feel like a huge risk to keep the centres and try Payne at full back. One way or another Ireland will win if they play to anything like their potential.