Stuttering start but 2019 can still be golden year for Ireland

It would be fair to say that as anti-climatic and disappointing as last Saturday in the Aviva was, it hardly constituted the sort of crisis and crossroads Irish rugby was looking at the last time we played and lost an opening Six Nations game to England, writes Kieran Shannon.

Stuttering start but 2019 can still be golden year for Ireland

It would be fair to say that as anti-climatic and disappointing as last Saturday in the Aviva was, it hardly constituted the sort of crisis and crossroads Irish rugby was looking at the last time we played and lost an opening Six Nations game to England, writes Kieran Shannon.

In fact it was so long ago since Ireland were previously paired against their oldest enemy in the first round of the competition, the tournament was in its first year being known as the Six Nations.

The same day Italy debuted in the top tier of European rugby with a magnificent 34-20 home win over Scotland, Ireland and head coach Warren Gatland suffered a far greater humiliation than the Scots did in Rome, as Clive Woodward’s England ran in six tries against them in a 50-18 pummelling.

Of course, as it transpired, that 2000 nightmare in Twickenham was the darkness before the dawn. A fortnight later Gatland gambled famously on youth and the Munster factor and it handsomely paid off, as the rookie quintet of O’Gara, Horgan, Stringer, Hayes, and Easterby, along with a recalled Mick Galwey, inspired Ireland to their first win over Scotland in 12 whole years. A month later and a 21-year-old Brian O’Driscoll was scoring a hat-trick of tries in Paris, a place Ireland hadn’t won in over 28 years.

Suffice to say, once they had that opening game over with, Ireland got progressively better in that tournament.

And that has been pretty much the trend ever since.

It’s not that Ireland tend to start the Six Nations on a losing note. Far from it. Last Saturday was only the fourth time in the intervening 19 years that Ireland have been defeated in the opening round of the tournament.

But that win-rate is skewed by the fact we’ve played England and France so rarely and Italy (seven times) so frequently.

Look at our performance levels in those opening games and they’ve left a lot to be desired.

Take the Schmidt era alone, including last year’s Grand Slam campaign. Johnny Sexton’s Le Drop was the most outstanding moment of the Irish sporting year and ultimately the play that kick-started and won his country a rare Grand Slam, but it would be fair to claim it bailed out Ireland when the rest of their performance against a young experimental French side barely deserved such an intervention. Paris was by a distance Ireland’s poorest display of the entire 2018 campaign.

The previous year Ireland landed in Edinburgh as prohibitive favourites after another tremendous autumn international series that included a win over the All Blacks, only for the team bus to arrive late at Murrayfield and then the team’s timing on the field to be out of sync as well as Scotland stunned them for three early tries and a 21-8 halftime lead, and ultimately a 27-22 win.

The year prior to that, Ireland entered the championship with aspirations of winning it for a third consecutive time, only to draw at home in the opening game to Wales, 16-16.

In the championship-winning campaigns of 2014 and 2015, the opening-day wins over Scotland and Italy respectively were by a distance Ireland’s least impressive wins of either campaign. In Rome, three Ian Keatley penalties were all Ireland scored in the first half, while against the Scots a year earlier only an Andrew Trimble touchdown in the closing seconds prevented them from going tryless for the opening 40 minutes of that campaign as well.

It wasn’t all that different pre-Schmidt. In fact, only three times over the last 20 years has one of Ireland’s best two performances over an entire Six Nations campaign definitively come in the opening day: 2013 when Zebo did that back-heel in Cardiff which would prove to be our only win of the campaign and the only loss for the Welsh; a 2009 win over the French which would set the tone for the resultant Grand Slam; and Eddie O’Sullivan’s first game as national head coach when a concussed rookie called Paul O’Connell scored a try in a 54-10 mauling of Wales.

Even with our 100% opening-day record against the Italians, those games have been more sleepwalks than cakewalks. In our last six opening games against them, the average score has been 23-12, with Ireland often needing a late try or drop goal to secure that margin of victory, or victory itself. When we’ve met them in any other round during that timespan, the average score has been 46-15 to Ireland.

In short, we tend to start slow, even — especially —under Schmidt when it comes to the Six Nations Championship. Though it would be too simplistic and inaccurate to say it’s a combination of rustiness and complacency, certainly the desired levels of cohesion and focus have tended to be off for the start of the championship.

It’s as if the two-week turnaround from playing a key sixth-round European game to then playing again in green is too quick for Ireland. As terrific as the autumn international window was, and there have been several one-day camps in the meantime, followed by the camp in Portugal the week before last, it’s as if the championship came too soon for Ireland. That Schmidt, especially with his preference for a huge volume of rehearsed plays, didn’t have enough time with them.

England though seemed to have enough time, as well as plenty of intent and hurt. It was a fact that tended to be overlooked in the lead-up to last week’s encounter, but England had done their fair share in seeing to it that the previous five championships had been all won by either of the two teams lining out in the Aviva. That just like Schmidt, Eddie Jones won the first two championships in his time in the job.

And it was particularly overlooked that with it being virtually impossible to retain an upward trajectory in all four years between World Cups, if there was a time for England to have a dip it was in year three of his project.

In Year One post-Lancaster, England needed a fillip and duly got it, as the ebullient Jones delivered a Grand Slam in his first year. In 2017 they’d win the championship again. Last year they had a dip, with Jones knowing that when you encourage players to make more decisions for themselves in realtime, there will be error to go with the trial.

So does even a risk-averse coach like Schmidt, trying out Rob Henshaw. And he would have known too that Ireland were always going to have some dip ahead of the World Cup. Not even a Johnny Sexton or Conor Murray can sustain their levels of excellence for a whole 18 months, especially when they’ve been coming off recent injuries, Murray’s obviously the longer layoff.

But time is still on their side. And in the coming weeks, Schmidt will have more time with them. Outside of playing France in game two, Ireland have a very good record the last 18 years playing their second game of a championship, especially against Scotland.

And heading into the World Cup, they will have had plenty of time and games with Schmidt.

The best year in Irish rugby history is not necessarily in the past. It could still be well on.

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