In sport it’s always about the next game.
Beating England last time out at the Aviva Stadium was really satisfying given how comprehensive and impressive the performance was but, by the time the Irish squad reassembled at Carton House last Sunday, the veneer had already begun to fade on that victory.
That’s the function of modern-day game analysis. Teams are always in search of the perfect performance, but, thankfully, it isn’t always necessary to produce one to win. England were found wanting in so many areas, for example that Ireland could afford to miss 27 tackles against them and still claim victory.
That might be sufficient to beat England, but not Wales in Cardiff - and certainly not New Zealand or South Africa in a World Cup. The beauty of this particular Irish squad is they take those lessons on board and tend not to repeat their mistakes.
Attractive and all as retaining the Six Nations championship is - not to mention the possibility of securing only a third ever Grand Slam - a bigger prize awaits only months down the line. The thing that excites me most about this current team is, despite winning 10 games on the trot, there is so much room for further development and in Joe Schmidt we have the coach to chase that possibility.
Good and all as that win over England was, Wales will provide a sterner examination of Ireland’s World Cup credentials on Saturday. That is why losing, in itself, will not be the disaster it may appear to be in the immediate aftermath of the game.
On the flip side, a record-breaking 11th Irish win on the trot at the Millennium will all but guarantee a coveted Grand Slam as Scotland, once again, have flattered to deceive and will be lucky to escape from Twickenham without a thumping. Some of their execution has been appalling and even carrying out the basics has eluded them.Against Italy a failure to find touch from a relieving penalty at the death cost them the game. Against Wales in the previous round Finn Russell failed to find touch on four separate occasions from penalties. That is criminal and will not suffice when they meet Ireland. They badly need to get something out of their trip to London in order to be in any state of mind to take on this extremely well- drilled Irish side.
In Cardiff, Schmidt will be aware that the Welsh, following a pattern of recent seasons, has got better with each Six Nations outing. Worryingly for Warren Gatland, Wales have been very slow out of the blocks in all recent autumn internationals and Six Nations tournaments. They were hammered 26-3 in Dublin last season but will not be as accommodating this time out. As Conor Murray is wont to say, the Irish players will not be falling in love with themselves after conducting their post England review last week in Belfast. There were too many areas requiring improvement to induce any smugness. That is no harm heading to Cardiff.
That high percentage of missed tackles is sure to exercise the mind given the direct running style favoured by Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies in the Welsh midfield. That experienced Lions test combination will ask far more questions of Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne than their Italian, French or English counterparts posed in any of the three opening contests.
Wales are similar to Ireland in that scrum domination is not something they actively seek or rely on. Once Ireland minimised their error count, reducing the number of English scrum put ins to a measly two over the course of the 80 minutes, the visitors lost a key source of potential dominance they had banked on in the build up to that game.
Wales will be thrilled if the number of scrums is reduced to single figures on Saturday, so Ireland’s low error count may well help to conceal a potential area of weakness as Gethin Jenkins, one of the best loose head props in the game for over a decade, appears to be on the wane. He will not unduly trouble Mike Ross who, against all the odds having been dropped from Leinster’s match day squad, is enjoying one of his best ever Six Nations tournaments.
At the outset of this championship, the word was that the Welsh management had been flogging the players in training with a longer term view towards preparations for the World Cup. This was a championship slightly diluted in importance for Gatland and his fellow coaches given the highly competitive nature of their pool in the World Cup that includes Australia and England. The manner of their opening defeat to England changed all that.
One area of concern for Schmidt and forwards coach Simon Easterby is the improved showing of the Welsh front five against France in Paris. For all their shortcomings, the French remain formidable opponents up front and Wales coped better than one imagined in advance of that game.
The Irish maul proved the key ingredient in last season’s big win in Dublin when Ireland inflicted one of the most comprehensive defeats over this Welsh under Gatland. It is clear from the sound bites of Robbie McBride and Shaun Edwards over the last weektheir coaching staff took that defeat personally and are eager to make amends.
If anyone was in any doubt as to how vital Johnny Sexton is to Ireland’s cause, Schmidt has shown there are exceptions to every rule when it comes to accommodating a special player. Joe’s mantra has always been if you can’t train fully on the Tuesday before a Saturday test you don’t play. Not so for Johnny and rightly so. With him Ireland are a more difficult proposition.
As for Ireland’s other talismanic figure, there is the small matter of Paul O’Connell winning his 100th Irish cap, becoming only the fourth Irish player after John Hayes, Ronan O’Gara and Brian O Driscoll to do so. This man has always led from the front, whether wearing the captain’s armband or not. If there was ever a day when the troops should seek to dig deeper to honour and acknowledge their respect for their leader then this is the day.
Presence in a dressing room is an intangible. O’Connell has made that so much easier as he has become the true embodiment of that precious commodity. I hope his special day is defined by one of those memorable team performances that defines everything he has brought to the Irish cause since making his debut against the same opposition over 13 years ago.
That is the least he deserves.
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