When word filtered through last week that Conor Murray was out of the Ireland side to play England, I developed a strange urge to take a leak. That nervous type of leak.
Whereever you were, in the office, on the sofa, in the car, if your weekend was hanging on Ireland beating England, you developed a mild sense of panic at that moment. Not that Kieran Marmion was starting, or that Luke McGrath was back-up. More that Murray was missing.
I put my own discombobulation down to the uncertainty. Give me a negative certainty over uncertainty any day. I can deal with a negative outcome, it’s the unknown that messes with my head. You need to leave the room, take a leak. Murray out. It flusters you. ‘We don’t know how this works, how it’s going to pan out now’. That horrible feeling of uncertainty.
And then the old adage is proven once more. The show goes on irrespective of who you are. Everyone said the same with Paul O’Connell and Munster: he couldn’t be done without.
Kieran Marmion goes from being the vice-president, a heartbeat away from the Oval Office, to one of the biggest Irish successes of the Six Nations championship. And I mean A Big Success.
He underlined that no shoes are too big to fill in sport. Munster supporters are sweating already that Murray may now miss the Champions Cup quarter-final against Toulouse next week, but Duncan Williams has already done a Marmion — he has stepped in and stepped up. He’s more than capable.
Besides I don’t think the Toulouse match comes down to who is playing nine, but we will return to that topic here next Friday.
I met Stuart Lancaster in Dublin before the England game and he was adamant that Andy Farrell would know exactly what England would bring to their attacking game. He was equally confident Ireland would have the measure of that England attack, which proved a very accurate prediction.
The world-record chasers held to nine points and not like they left a clutch of try-scoring opportunities out there either.
People react differently when there is real pressure — we saw England under real pressure for one of the few occasions in this mammoth run of consecutive victories. How many simple knock-ons were there?
Anthony Watson couldn’t catch the ball. Easy passes were dropped. The English were rattled by crowd, occasion, and the pressure applied by Irish intensity. As mentioned here last week, one of the few consistencies of the Six Nations is home form.
Take Italy out of it, and England’s win in Cardiff was the only away success in the tournament. The unpredictability of the formline was such that the Six Nations was less a tournament than a series of distinct weekend entities. Scotland beat Ireland and Wales, Wales beat Ireland, England lose to Ireland, Ireland beat France, France beat Wales.
Last Saturday, Ireland were so dominant. People are missing that point. England never led. For a so-called superpower to never get ahead over 80 minutes says a lot. The inclusion of Peter O’Mahony — notwithstanding the nonsense argument advanced by Eddie Jones about Jamie Heaslip, underlined the Munster man’s strongest attributes.
Here’s the odd thing, however. O’Mahony was very good — he won one brilliant ball in the air — but there’s more in him. Joe Schmidt isn’t blind to what he brings to the back row and to the team dynamic, but in the previous four games he didn’t feature. There’s a reason for that.
The other three lads were showing more in training. He has had his frustrations, and little luck with injuries, but he has done what I’d expect him as a professional to do — show on the big occasion what he is capable of.
Before the England game, I’d have still seen him as an outsider to go on the Lions tour. Now he’s pushed himself into contention but the big game now for him is the quarter-final of the Champions Cup tomorrow week.
The back-row is an impossible selection choice for the Irish management. It says something of his meteoric rise that the only one guaranteed selection was CJ Stander because of the sequence of quality performances. Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip have credit in the bank, but when you’ve someone like Peter O’Mahony on the bench, there has to be a selection debate every time. Joe Schmidt isn’t for messing with players’ heads.
Stander is delivering game on game, and if he is doing that, he gets picked at six. That opens the debate for another day: does Stander go to eight? Of the four back rows involved last Saturday for Ireland, the only one guaranteed to go on the Lions, in my view, is CJ Stander, because of his freakish consistency.
These are not automatons though. Things change, form dips. Injury interrupts. There’s not much you can do as a coach if a player hasn’t been presenting fit, especially when there are players delivering in those positions game in, game out.
After the French game, everyone in Ireland was singing Jamie Heaslip’s praises, and yet with one tweak of a hamstring, he is regarded as the vulnerable one in light of O’Mahony’s tour de force.
There would be surprise if there’s any less than 13 Irish players going to New Zealand with the Lions, and it may rise to 15. Between that exposure on one hand, and the Irish tour to America and Japan, Joe Schmidt will approach the autumn with a very good sense of where he is vis-a-vis 2019 World Cup planning.
The Lions is high-end stuff but Schmidt may quarry more nuggets out of the Japan tour. On the 2001 Lions tour to Australia, the Irish contingent came home with their eyes opened to the way the English players prepped themselves, how they were ahead by some distance in their strength and conditioning.
Those gaps have been eliminated over time. There is no appreciable difference now between what the England, Ireland, Welsh, or Scottish players are doing.
The rugby world is smaller. Scotland’s Vern Cotter would have worked with Joe Schmidt, Warren Gatland has been working with Wales, Eddie Jones has been around the block. There’s marginal differences but no more than that.
For the likes of an Andrew Conway, the tour to Japan offers a lovely opportunity for him to build on the huge developments of last Saturday. The Munster man was a big winner against England.
That’s not winning a test cap against Italy in a World Cup warm-up, by the way. The confidence he will take from that should elevate him to a new plateau for the summer, but first for Munster’s run-in to the end of the season.
He now gives Munster options at 11, 14 and 15. I’ve become a fan. I was hesitant about his career trajectory when he came to Munster first, but he’s had a bit of attitude adjustment, and it was great to see him not taking a backward step with Mike Brown threatening to box him.
They’re little margins that make a difference.
Racing 92 face Clermont Auvergne in Lille tomorrow night with contrasting goals. If we don’t win, I fear for our top six prospects, while Clermont will be playing with one eye on their Champions Cup meeting with Toulon on Sunday week.
Management has tried to confine the players to the matters at hand this last week, but the discussions over a possible merger with Stade Francais has made that fairly difficult.
Most of the noise has been coming from the Stade side of the fence, but the ‘fusion’ was rendered dead in the water anyway last Sunday when Racing president Jacky Lorenzetti declared that he was abandoning his beautiful dream.
In truth, the whole thing has been somewhat bizarre and hasn’t done anything for our dressing room morale either.
Our president will progress the stadium project but the future of Stade Francais would appear less secure with president Thomas Savare reportedly looking to offload the club within three months.
It’s clear he’s not going to continue pumping money in and if the club wishes to retain its identity, it may even be as an amateur entity. In six years, he has yet to receive a credible offer of investment in the club. Strange times in Paris.