There was no doubting the satisfaction Joe Schmidt took from the heights Ireland scaled against France last Sunday, and yet the Kiwi coach wasn’t slow in pointing out how the collective performance fell off a cliff towards the end. Leading 26-0 with just three minutes of normal time to go in Dublin, the hosts were on course to better its record defeat of the French — a 24-0 whitewash in Cork back in 1913 — before the visitors claimed two converted tries inside the last three minutes.
Schmidt touched on that about-turn after the game, pointing out how at first the raft of replacements had managed to maintain the side’s momentum, focus, and energy before the team, somehow, lost its way and allowed the French to restore some pride. The result is that Ireland head to Cardiff on Saturday still seeking an 80-minute performance after five rounds of the Six Nations and knowing that a Welsh side chasing a Grand Slam on home soil will punish any drop-off in Irish levels far more than an abject France.
Ultan Dillane, one of those in that second wave, understands that only too well. “The French are not the same as the Welsh. They’re going to be a completely different outfit. They could punish us more at that time in the game, so it means we definitely have a lot of work to do to put in a good performance in the Principality Stadium.” J
ohn Ryan, another of those to make a belated entrance against ‘les Bleus’, suggested the intensity levels had simply dropped on the part of the hosts in Ballsbridge. Dillane struggled to put his finger on anything definitively but he did make a stab at it.
“We had a spell where we felt we should have got more points out of it, but the scrum didn’t go our way in that last scrum and we ended up not getting possession. That’s where we missed an opportunity to put the nail in the coffin. But the French fought back reasonably well to get that first try (through Yoann Huget) and then we gave away a penalty maul in the corner. I could have done a better job, but then that cost us another try so…”
Such honesty is par for the course in this Irish squad, but Dillane’s overall form has been good enough for him to work his way back into the second row reckoning in 2019 and bag over 100 minutes of game time in the fixtures against Scotland, Italy and France. Injuries to Devin Toner and Iain Henderson, added to the decision to rest James Ryan in Rome, have aided him, but Dillane’s presence at media duties this week would suggest he is primed for another contribution off the bench this weekend. That’s no small thing.
Tadhg Beirne, believed to be in the running for a start ing berth this weekend, and Quinn Roux are others looking to elbow their way into the reckoning, and Dillane’s ability to eke out game time is all the more notable when taken in a wider context. He had played five times for Ireland in the 2016/17 season before a shoulder injury ended his campaign in March and, while named in the squad for the Championship 12 months ago, he suffered the loss of his mother Ellen prior the week of the game against Italy.
It was , it goes without saying, a difficult time for the Tralee man and, while, his mother’s name wasn’t mentioned when he was asked, or when he spoke about, last season, there was an honesty in describing how that trying time affected him.
“My head was elsewhere in terms of what to focus on,” he explained. “I’ve never looked back on last season and thought, ‘I should have done this and that.’ I just felt it was a bit awkward. But I’m happy to be at this stage of the season, to feel fit and strong, and hopefully take it into returning to my province. I’m definitely in a better position than I was last season.”
The question now is how much further he can take this. Ireland are likely to name only four locks for the World Cup in Japan — and James Ryan, Toner, and Henderson are all certainties to travel if fit. That leaves Dillane, Roux, and Beirne in a three-man race for the last spot.
“I wouldn’t project myself that far. I’m just hoping about this week, that’d be great. After that I am thinking the World Cup won’t happen if I get injured and miss the rest of the season. I just have to focus on this season and Connacht.”