Ronan O’Gara.


Many believe there’s loads more to come from Ireland. I wouldn’t be too sure

After the 2015 World Cup, the Racing 92 coaching ticket was invited to meet the ex-England head coach Stuart Lancaster in Paris, writes Ronan O’Gara.

Many believe there’s loads more to come from Ireland. I wouldn’t be too sure

Racing’s director of rugby, Arnaud Tourtoulou, had been a liaison officer for the English at the 2007 World Cup in France and had maintained contacts within the RFU hierarchy. Given the fact Lancaster had been essentially chased out of town after the 2015 World Cup on home soil, I was intrigued by the prospect of picking his brain and hearing of the experience.

On Grand Slam Saturday in Twickenham last weekend, the second most powerful feeling of emotion I felt was for Lancaster. Everywhere he’s looked since stepping down in 2015 he has seen Eddie Jones’ smiling, winning face. Each time Jones appeared on the big screen at Twickenham in recent years, it was met with a standing ovation. Lancaster was almost attending matches under the cover of disguise. But Lancaster never lost three Six Nations games in a row.

And after he was herded out the gate by the RFU, he went off to Leinster, reset his co-ordinates and proved to himself and everybody else once again what an excellent coach he is.

The meeting in Paris three years ago extended later in the evening to a lovely restaurant and meal with Laurent Labit, Laurent Travers, and myself.

Lancaster was humble and exposed, brutally honest and brilliantly insightful. You could feel his hurt. He presented his post-World Cup findings like he would to a committee, the challenges he had faced, the ones that had bettered him, the mistakes he’d made. In everything he said, I was pitching it ahead to 2019. We have remained in contact and the fascination remains with his vulnerability when faced with the wrath of a nation.

Stuart got absolutely slaughtered when England exited the last World Cup after defeat to Australia. He anticipated that. It’s a results business. Hence the intrigue this week with the fallout in England over a fifth-placed finish in the Six Nations championship.

In the unlikely event of reality and sanity being the basis for the post-mortems, maybe Stuart Lancaster, and his vilification might be used as a reference point.

Here in New Zealand, sympathy for Eddie is in short supply. The joy is palpable that Ireland won the Grand Slam, and the name of Joe Schmidt is everywhere.

That Ireland and New Zealand could not meet until the final of the 2019 World Cup has been mentioned too. Which, frankly, borders on lunacy. Ireland go to Australia for three summer tests, England travel to South Africa. The dynamic of both squads will tell a lot more about the thinking ahead of the World Cup than any gossip or pool permutations.

Will Jones bring the likes of Hartley, Robshaw, Cole et al in June or will he begin the handover to a younger, fresher crew? The greatest damage done to England last Saturday at Twickenham was not the loss of the Championship, but the confirmation that mentally and physically, England aren’t in the same space as Ireland. The psychological damage of that 24-15 loss travelled further down that road than anyone could imagine. Eddie Jones’ players got absolutely hockeyed. Owen Farrell didn’t score a point.

Ireland’s summer tour to Australia will be hugely interesting. If there’s more improvement in that Ireland squad, it’s incredibly exciting, but with Joe Schmidt, you have to think Ireland are already operating at 80%-plus. He squeezes so much out of them, that even in a Grand Slam decider when Johnny Sexton only puts four points on the board, the attack is so multi-faceted that the prospect of victory is not compromised.

Many believe there is loads more to come from Ireland. I wouldn’t be too sure. As a player, you want to be going on that tour to Australia.

Being left at home and out of a Joe squad could wreck your head. He might go with Conor Murray and Sexton as a pair in one of the three tests, but he has got to give them the other two off for the sake of Joey Carbery and Kieran Marmion.

In terms of growing Ireland’s assault on the 2019 World Cup, the month Down Under is massively important.

Between now and then, there will be twists and injuries. It may prove a timely comeback tour for Keith Earls and the like, others could be after a successful Champions Cup campaign. Schmidt has created such a culture of success around Irish rugby that the expectation of victory from the national team down is manifest. If the James Ryans and Jordan Larmours are full of confidence, how could they be any other way? The Leinster lock has never lost a professional rugby game. Think of that.

I DIDN’T believe there was any prospect a first defeat would come last Saturday either, given the opening from the visitors. In fact, from a rugby perspective, the most surprising thing was that in a Grand Slam game, there was never a moment’s doubt that Ireland would win. You could stick a fork in it once Stockdale went over for the try on half-time. Hat-tip too, forgotten by many, to Joey Carbery for his key cameo in that move, and the subsequent conversion. He is proving to be a very interesting option.

Had Ireland gone in at the break — as many teams would have been happy to — 14-5 in front, it leaves a whiff of something for England to hang onto. Score first after half-time and it puts a spanner in Irish heads. But such a dominant Irish first half deserved to climax with brilliance from Murray, Carbery, and Stockdale.

There were, again, vignettes of Schmidt’s video work sprinkled all over the performance — the second try in all its surprising glory — but there’s a reason too you select a Shaun Payne or, in this current context, a Rob Kearney — a full-back whom you just need to be safe.

Compare Kearney to Anthony Watson and what both achieved under a high ball last Saturday. It’s just a ballbreaker for the forwards when your full-back is dropping a high ball close to the line for a wrapped present to the opposition.

Rob Kearney is at an age now where he knows and listens to his own body. He can manage injury and come back better each time. His attack game against England was the best I’ve ever seen from him.

He was a big winner at Twickenham. But even with him, or Stockdale, Ryan, Furlong, Leavy or Stander (kudos for not getting caught for a double movement for that splendid try), Conor Murray remained the Irish player operating on a level higher than anyone else in the Championship. He was my player of the tournament.

Dan Leavy has proved an exceptional seven and it proved a significant tournament too for Rory Best in terms of his longevity. That Keith Earls limped out of the climax with a medial ligament issue is an unkind cut for Munster, who are already preparing for the visit of Toulon minus Farrell, Cloete, and now Bleyendaal.

Of small consolation will be Toulon’s own woes — beaten by Mike Prendergast’s Oyonnax, three of their management were invited for a chat with the club’s hierarchy. In that, there was only going to be one winner.

The Munster and Leinster squads have another important intangible on their side next week — the bounce that returning Grand Slammers will bring to the squads in Champions Cup week. Compare that to the Saracens mindset coming to Dublin to face a Leinster side crammed full of Six Nations winners — and the possibility that Sean O’Brien might be there to welcome them too.

An interesting proposition.

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