This week represents a step back in time for some of Ireland’s senior players. In the past, the sanctuary of the provincial dressing room proved a welcome pressure release from the intense scrutiny attached to the seven-week bubble that accompanies a Six Nations campaign. Exhilarating when things are going well, suffocating when form and fortune deserts you. It’s a while since Ireland’s players have felt so underwhelmed after a Six Nations campaign, or any other international window for that matter.
Then again, it’s not that long ago that winning three out of five Six Nations clashes would be seen as a very decent return. Despite some of the nonsense spouted about Joe Schmidt since the defeat in Cardiff, the Kiwi has delivered three Six Nations championships, including a Grand Slam, in his six tournaments in charge.
In the other three, Ireland finished second once and third twice, winning 23 of our last 26 internationals.
That said, several seasoned campaigners within the squad will have welcomed the change of scenery this week with an entirely different focus to whet the appetite. Every one of the 36 players used by Schmidt in the recent campaign has something tangible to aim for next weekend in the form of a European quarter-final.
For the Leinster and Ulster players, a Champions Cup face-off at a sold-out Aviva Stadium could hardly focus the mind better. For the Munster contingent, a demanding and potentially fraught trip to Murrayfield against a hard-nosed and well-organised Edinburgh side, packed with Scottish forwards who redeemed a lot of pride with their second-half exploits against England at Twickenham.
Richard Cockerill will have them salivating at the thought at taking on the highly-rated Munster eight. Despite the disappointing setbacks against England and Wales, the Six Nations campaign proved a rewarding experience for the growing Connacht contingent in the national squad. Five Connacht players in Quinn Roux, Ultan Dillane, Kieran Marmion, Jack Carty, and Bundee Aki saw game-time.
In addition, Caolin Blade and Tom Farrell were exposed to the excruciating demands required of all players within the national squad as part of the set-up in Carton House for the majority of the seven-week period.
They will have returned to Galway better for that experience and Connacht, boosted by a great performance in a bonus-point win over Benetton last Saturday, remain on track to achieve their goal of automatic qualification for Champions Cup rugby next season. That should enable them to have a right go off Sale Sharks in their Challenge Cup quarter-final in Manchester on Friday night. Ironically, it’s a few of Ireland’s most experienced campaigners that will relish the opportunity to rediscover their true selves on their return to home comforts.
For Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, next weekend offers the chance of something different. Both are star performers with a proven pedigree and track record at the highest levels. Right now, neither can buy a break.
Sexton would do well to be reminded of the furore in New Zealand surrounding Dan Carter in the season leading into the 2015 World Cup. He too was struggling with injury and form at a time when the exciting new kid on the block in Beauden Barrett was tearing up trees and scoring spectacular tries for fun with the Hurricanes in Super Rugby and for the All Blacks.
Behind him, Aaron Cruden was also playing superbly for the Chiefs. In the same way that Schmidt knows exactly what he has in Sexton, New Zealand coach Steve Hansen knew the animal he was dealing with in Carter. Despite the escalating outside noise, Hansen encouraged and reassured his man.
Carter turned 33 six months in advance of that 2015 campaign yet emerged as the player of the tournament and the pivotal influence in the win over Australia in the final, despite the fact that the Crusaders had a poor season, failing to make the knockout phase of Super Rugby.
In contrast Sexton, who turns 34 in July, is a key figure in a Leinster set-up that remain in a very strong position to repeat the domestic and European double that capped a remarkable season for the world player of the year last season. Their European crown will come under severe threat, not least from Saracens and last year’s runners-up Racing 92, but Leinster look odds on to retain the PRO14 title.
Sexton needs to eliminate the histrionics and rediscover his true self in a Leinster shirt over the next two months.
Europe offers him the chance to move on from a thoroughly underwhelming Six Nations campaign that just got away from him. It happens to the best. Just ask Carter.
Ulster won’t lack for motivation, not least from the large contingent of former Leinster players in their squad. Jordi Murphy started for them in last season’s Champions Cup decider in Bilbao and he, along with John Cooney, Marty Moore, Eric O’Sullivan, Nick Timoney, and Alan O’Connor could all make the Ulster matchday squad.
Munster offer the same platform to kick on for Murray even if their task against Edinburgh looks more challenging than what Leinster are likely to encounter in Dublin. Edinburgh have already beaten French giants Toulon twice along with Montpellier in the pool stage this season.
Seven of the Scottish pack that started against England are available to Cockerill on Saturday. However, not all will be picked as he has even better options available outside that group. Fijian Sevens Olympic gold medalist Viliame Mata is far more explosive with ball in hand than any forward Gregor Townsend had available to him and is sure to start at No. 8. The returning John Barclay will also come into contention while South African loose head prop Pierre Schoeman is a far more disruptive scrummager than his Edinburgh team-mate Allen Dell.
While Murray will welcome the prospect of a return to Munster colours, he will be hoping that his forwards will be in a position to deliver better and quicker quality ball than he received in the Six Nations. Despite the fact that Munster will have all their big guns available up front, apart from Tommy O’Donnell, they will have their work cut out to get the better of this well drilled Edinburgh unit.
I didn’t care much for Johann van Graan’s comments after Saturday’s win over Zebre in relation to competition for starting slots in the team. “We have a set starting 15,” he said, referring to the side that played against Exeter in Thomond Park in January. Players must feel they have a genuine chance of making the side, otherwise they will switch off.
Offering a half each to JJ Hanrahan and Tyler Bleyendaal last weekend, in a semi audition in the event of Joey Carbery being ruled out this weekend, doesn’t exactly fill his potential replacement with confidence. After eight months of action, the management must know who their best back up No. 10 is and give him 80 minutes in advance of a possible quarter-final appearance.
If Carbery fails to make it after his recent hamstring problems, there will be even more pressure on Murray to direct operations from half-back. Who knows: Maybe that’s exactly what he needs to spark his season.
Either way Murray, along with several of his Irish team-mates, will relish the change of environment as the business end of the club season kicks off in earnest this weekend.