Like a young rock band bursting onto the scene full of blistering bravado, Joe Schmidt’s new Ireland have made their splash on the rugby landscape.
Now comes the difficult second album.
No-one should complain about the early success delivered in Schmidt’s first Six Nations campaign since succeeding Declan Kidney as head coach last summer but when the first act goes so well, as it has with a first championship title in five years brought about by a victory in Paris that broke a 14-year drought, it sets the bar high.
Stage two of the Schmidt era begins here, with a World Cup 17 months away and while the New Zealander has already made great strides in bringing the winning culture he cultivated at Leinster to the Test arena, there are still important steps to take before Ireland face Canada in their pool opener in Cardiff on September 19, 2015.
He has just 10 Test matches – two this summer in Argentina, three in November, five in the 2015 Six Nations — plus the tournament warm-ups to settle not just on a starting side to win Ireland’s group and avoid facing a Southern Hemisphere giant before the semi-finals but also a wider squad capable of fulfilling his requirement to be every bit as knowledgeable of their roles and capable of executing them as the men on the field at kick-off.
After eight matches at the helm, the growth achieved by his squad is already considerable. Ireland finished the tournament level on points with England but with a points difference 10 points better than their rivals, with the most tries and the meanest defence, the most efficient set-piece, the best discipline and the fewest turnovers conceded. Championship stuff indeed.
With a set-piece rejuvenated under forwards coach John Plumtree, Ireland had a solid and productive platform that contributed heavily to the 16 tries scored in the championship.
No better example came than at Stade de France on Saturday night, when the set-piece got the ball rolling, first off a lineout for Johnny Sexton’s opening try and then when Louis Picamoles’ terrible knock-on handed them the initiative at the scrum as Mike Ross made life a misery for French loosehead Thomas Domingo, leading to Andrew Trimble’s try, Ireland’s second of the night.
Schmidt’s attention to detail on the training ground allied to the work ethic of his players he praised on Saturday night also allowed for some remarkable breakdown efficiency and ferocity, leading to the lowest penalty count of the tournament, just 36 in five games and a remarkably low two against Italy as well as just 68 turnovers throughout the competition with Peter O’Mahony leading the turnover table with seven from four games, Chris Henry equal second on six.
The coach’s tactical flexibility also bodes well for the global challenges faced by a World Cup, Ireland mixing it up during this Six Nations to a degree rarely seen before, their tactical kicking accounting for Wales, a high tempo running Italy into the ground and with well executed backline moves throughout. Only against England did they lose momentum and cutting edge, save for a superbly worked Rob Kearney try, against Andy Farrell’s exceptionally well-drilled defence.
Yet there were more positives with Schmidt’s careful formulation of the Ireland bench another key factor in the team’s success. The emergence of young props Jack McGrath and Marty Moore gave the Irish second string front row a real impact alongside hooker Sean Cronin, at least before a late wobble in Paris on Saturday saw the French regain some pride and parity through their replacement loosehead Vincent Debaty. In Tommy O’Donnell, Schmidt got the benefit of a young openside flanker reaching his prime with Munster to utilise his dynamic energy, great hands and tireless legs late on in games.
Lots to applaud, then, and all with several top-drawer players to return to the fold, if not this summer then for next season, including Sean O’Brien, Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald and Donnacha Ryan as well as those currently on the outside looking in, such as wings Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy and props Declan Fitzpatrick, Stephen Archer and Dave Kilcoyne.
Players like those, and hopefully a finally fit again Stephen Ferris, can really give Schmidt a selection headache as he tries to develop a really strong and deep squad capable of taking on the world next year.
There are still some fixes needed, course, and not just in bedding in a worthy successor to Brian O’Driscoll at outside centre.
There are also midfield issues in the No. 12 jersey, where Gordon D’Arcy has performed heroically at times during this season.
And what of his successor, Luke Marshall, whose future has been thrown into doubt by another concussion? The options after Marshall are seemingly thin on the ground.
Back-up at fly-half is another issue for Schmidt where Johnny Sexton’s place-kicking has come under increased scrutiny.
Sexton’s game management and attacking flair are beyond reproach but if there’s an off-day with the boot, then it is exacerbated by both Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan’s lack of opportunity with their respective provinces, Jackson ceding kicking duties to scrum-half Ruan Pienaar at Ulster, while Madigan is locked in a fierce selection battle for the Leinster No. 10 jersey with Jimmy Gopperth.
And then of course, there is the realisation that it is not just Ireland who are currently on the up right now.
Australia showed all too vividly against Ireland in November that they are rediscovering their form under new coach Ewen McKenzie, while England have the makings of an extremely effectively outfit under Lancaster, particularly with a World Cup looming on their home turf.
And all of them, of course, still have the mighty All Blacks to knock off their perch.
It is not just Schmidt embarking on that difficult follow-up, then. Rugby’s charts are looking increasingly crowded with talent aiming for the number one spot.
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