Ireland’s rugby heroes have come away from their opening two Six Nations games with perfect results. A workmanlike effort against Scotland was followed by a ferocious onslaught of the Welsh dragons in the Aviva Stadium on Saturday. Resultantly, we sit atop the table on point’s difference with previously injured players returning and a triple crown to play for in Twickenham next weekend. It all sounds perfect, right? This Irish team has greatly underperformed since Declan Kidney’s troops delivered a Grand Slam in Cardiff four years ago. Joe Schmidt shall face his biggest test in the coming weeks, not preparing for the gargantuan English pack, but tempering Irish expectations.
Saturday’s pragmatic and uncharacteristic 26 – 3 win over Wales is the first time Ireland have won their two opening matches since the aforementioned Grand Slam. We, as Irish people, have an odd relationship with expectation and reality, always saving our best performances for when we fear annihilation or anticipate immortality. The golden age of Irish rugby, filled with names like O’Connell, O’Gara and King O’Driscoll have changed the culture, but it re-emerges from time to time. For example, no one needs reminding of the Australian walloping from the Autumn. When we expect great things of ourselves, we often come up short. None the less, it is difficult now to become a slight bit guilty. Addressing the mentality of a nation must become Schmidt’s goal. The sobering reality is that Ireland have not won in both Paris and Twickenham in the same year since 1972. In addition, some may say Wales played shockingly poorly on Saturday. When one looks at it this way, perhaps the lofted expectation and bandwagon support need not be so enthusiastic.
Rarely does a Schmidt team play the way that Ireland did against Wales. They adhered rigidly to a pre-ordained game-plan from their New Zealand talisman. It was designed to beat specifically the Welsh opposition by not maintaining possession but by winning the trench warfare of the breakdown before kicking the leather off the ball. This is to be applauded as it shows a real belief in their leader. Of course, this is helped when he is certainly one of the top tactical coaches in the world (unlike his predecessor whom Ronan O’Gara recently slated in his self entitled documentary.) As required, Ireland attacked the breakdown while chop-tackling the bruising barrage of red. Even Gordon D’Arcy’s biggest of critics (such as myself) must acknowledge how valuable he is in such a salvo, going as low as players ankles to ensure they are grounded. The field was littered with outstanding Irish performances. As what is now expected of him weekly, Rob Kearney delivered a top drawer performance against his opposite number, the “best full back in Europe”, Leigh Halfpenny. Jonathon Sexton is finally starting to look like a polished tactical kicker and one must assume that is the influence of coach O’Gara in the south of France these days!
Although the backs were, in their own way (mostly defensively) outstanding, this was a game won by forwards and namely the back row. The most thrown around phrase in rugby continues as: “forwards decide who wins the game while the backs decide by how much.” As the backs upped their aerial bombardment, Ireland reduced collisions and breakdowns on the ground against a much bigger side. They rarely went beyond a few phases before resorting to the air. This meant that the back row could save their energy and use it to attack the ruck when it was prudent to do so. Enter Peter O’Mahony. While the camera panned across the team during the national anthem, one could hear an enraged man roaring the blas over the rest of the stadium. It has since been revealed that was O’Mahony. He engaged in an incensed manner, playing warlord as he has for Munster on countless occasions. What made this performance so outstanding however, was how the Corconian engaged with a controlled ferocity where he continued to pick his spots with manic aggression as opposed to burning out early. When the absence of Sean O’Brien is not noticeable at the breakdown, it is a sign of wonder. The thought of O’Brien, O’Mahony and Jamie Heaslip (another strong performer Saturday) or his successor in waiting Jordi Murphy composing the back row for another six or seven years is a very promising product.
This is another area where Schmidt deserves praise. During his time at Leinster, he brought through some excellent youth talent which was evident against Wales. Marty Moore and Jack McGrath both playing crunch time minutes this weekend and were joined by Dave Kearney and Devin Toner. The former two especially show how Ireland is well equipped for the future; especially in a position we have suffered epidemically. Irish clubs experimented with the purchase of top southern hemisphere props over the past ten years. Finally we are starting to grow props. Even more to our benefit is the ever changing scrum laws which will benefit our smaller and dynamic props.
This is where Schmidt is pulling the wool over the eyes of the public. While we shall all pre occupy ourselves with talk of a Grand Slam, he is quietly building a very strong squad for Rugby World Cup 2015. When one adds the returning Sean O’Brien, Simon Zebo, Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls, Donnacha Ryan alongside the ever growing Craig Gilroy, J.J Hanrahan and Robbie Henshaw to the squad, the competition for places will be astonishing. This stands, even with the departure of “the Great One” at the end of this year.
The Irish media were never too pragmatic. Everything is all well and good right now. Warren Gatland and Wales acknowledged that they were not ready for Irish tactics Saturday and that it was the worst performance of Gatland’s reign. It perhaps is also prudent to consider how much this Irish team had to play for. Gatland dropped our national darling whilst he was in the course of his swansong Lions tour. It is a naive man who believes that was not used to fuel the Irish performance. It is only the true class of O’Driscoll never to mention it.
The real challenges of this tournament will come away from Irish turf, accompanied by daunting expectations. If a win comes in Twickenham, expect the expectations to rise inordinately. It must be stated that without a doubt, Ireland have the talent to win this tournament. Schmidt may have beaten a team stacked with Lions, but the real test may be maintaining the top two inches of each man’s head in Paris come March.
His battle against an Irish mindset and mentality echoes the famous words which answer the question, with this squad, what frightens us? “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
If Schmidt liberates a nation from its fear, there is no telling as to what can happen.