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.

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21 Comments

  1. ORiordan

     /  March 23, 2016

    Putting aside the game against an abject Italy, Ireland’s inability to score tries through the backs must be a worry (save for Murray’s efforts from 1m out..)

    Muddie Wulliams has been making the valid point, I think, that you need to score at least 3 or more tries against the big southern hemisphere teams to stand a chance of winning and Ireland just aren’t going to be able to bosh their way through.

    I really don’t know where the tries will come from Joe’s current preferred backline and bench where solidity, predictability and versatility seems to be the main criteria for selection.

  2. D6W

     /  March 23, 2016

    I don’t know if you can definitively say Schmidt does not trust McCloskey. It is just as likely that he adamantly wants to play Payne at 13 when he is fit, which means that it is a choice between Henshaw and McCluskey at 12, with Henshaw being favoured due to experience at the moment. Unfortunately McCluskeys lack of versatility means he is not a bench option.

    • Agree on the Payne-at-13 point. He went so far as to say Payne hasn’t even trained at 15, which confirms your logic. That said, if Sonny Bill Williams is versatile enough for the Kiwi bench, then McCloskey is good versatile enough for ours. There has to be a trade off of versatility against impact, and there’s no rule saying McCloskey couldn’t be picked in the No.23 shirt.

      • D6W

         /  March 23, 2016

        PS It seems a bit premature to be comparing McCluskey and Sonny Bill.

      • curates_egg

         /  April 5, 2016

        I would have liked to see McCloskey start the last two games but I think you are totally wrong to see him as a bench option. To my knowledge, he has only ever played 12 for Ulster: that is about the worst possible position to be a bench specialist for. Pretty much every other back in the country apart from him covers at least two positions.

        Given we knew Sexton wouldn’t finish games, I think it was a big mistake not to have Jackson on the bench; all the more if you are picking a utility back. While McFadden is way, way down the pecking order, I think he delivered in spades from the bench in his final game and showed exactly why it is important to have a utility back on the bench.

    • ORiordan

       /  March 23, 2016

      Again, maybe Joe’s insistence on “versatility” is something that will need to change if Ireland are to progress. “Versatile” is another way of saying mediocre in a number of positions. A player who can do a job, but is unlikely to make much of a difference.

      It looks like selection based upon who is the least worst at a range of skills rather than a player who is really good at some particular aspect of the game.

      • There is something in that. However looking back on this 6 nations without a defense coach it was a banana skin. Joe picked the players that he had the most confidence and knowledge of to get him through. The defensive lapses that let Ireland down against Argentina are still evident at Ulster. With Farrell having been on “gardening leave”. However the biggest single issue has been the lack of succession planning again on show. How long will it take for him to get the squad to automate the new defensive system under pressure? One or Two seasons? Even with significant familiarity of Les Kiss and his methods the Ulster teams defense this year has been inconsistent to be diplomatic.

        • Ulster’s defence was the best in the league until losing to Munster, Cardiff and Scarlets. The whee lnuts had well and truly been loosened. Even now it is still the second best, just 23 behind Leinster in points conceded and over 50 less than anyone else. 118 less than Connacht for example . Only Leinster have conceded fewer tries, 4 in fact. Ulster have also scored more tries than anyone except Connacht,41 to 49 and have conceded 20 to Connachts 38. Something isn’t right with Ulster’s ‘D’ but what? It has had more to do with guys missing tackles and idiotic concession of kickable penalties.

          • Ulster are actually third highest try scorers (Cardiff have 43). Will be interesting to see how Kiss gets on in the next few games, Ulster have the worst league run-in of any of the contenders.

          • First up tackles is defense but it would be interesting to know just what statics there are for tries conceded on the edges of the defense.

      • D6W

         /  March 23, 2016

        In the case of this 6 nations, I don’t think versatility was irrelevant. If McCluskey had replaced Madigan on the bench, then what would have happened if Johhny had succumbed to the targeting he was subjected to?

        And if McCluskey had replaced McFadden (who played well when he came on, despite the widespread derision at his selectiom) what would have happened if one of the wingers or the FB had to be replaced. There would have had to be whole scale rejigging of the entire back line, something I am sure would Schmidt would have been against due to his (over?)-reliance on systems and cmobinations.

        Madigan was there to cover 10, 12 and 13, and McFadden to cover 13, 14, 15, neither job McCluskey can completely do at the moment.

        • jacothelad

           /  March 23, 2016

          Look at the top sides in world rugby. Do they select players for their ability to be average in a few positions rather than top class in one? I think Steve Hansen would pee himself laughing if you suggested that SBW should be excluded for a journeyman who once played 15 for the U12 Bs or scrum half in the park with his Labrador.

          • D6W

             /  March 24, 2016

            If McCluskey was close to a SBW, we would not be debating whether he should be on the bench or not, he would be starting!

        • jacothelad

           /  March 23, 2016

          How many times did Madigan come on to cover 12 or 15? I’d rather have McCloskey or Marshall at 12 or 13 than any of Joe’s ‘Versatile but dull in any position ‘Boys.

        • Paul

           /  March 24, 2016

          It’s all well and good saying Madigan is versatile and covers 10, 12 and 13 but twice in the championship there was opportunities to show his versatility and he stayed on the bench. Payne played most of the second half of the France match on one leg and against England when McCloskey came off we brought on Zebo and Henshaw moved to 12, Earls 13 and Zebo on the wing.

  3. South Africa and the Windy City are the crucibles in which a new Irish team – post-BO’D and post-PO’C – will be forged. Find the leaders to stop us being bullied around the park – by invoking the spirit of “99” I suggest (glimmers of which were to be seen v the Scots) – and we have enough youthful talent coming through e.g. Olding, McCloskey, Ringrose, Henshaw – to get our backline purring again. I still trust Joe and am looking forward to Andy Farrell’s contribution to the “environment”!

  4. andrew097

     /  March 24, 2016

    It’s time somebody said it until two step Murry gets a bit of speedy competition the back line will struggle he just eats up too much time trying to decide if he wants the ball then the couple of steps. No competition no urgency

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