With three wins, including a first over New Zealand, November has been a hugely encouraging month for Joe Schmidt and Irish rugby in general. So what were the major discussion points?
1. Embarrassment of back row riches
Even in the good old amateur days, Ireland were always flush with quality back rowers. Check any Lions tour party and you will find we always had a presence in that key area. That said, the options open to Joe Schmidt are unprecedented.
Let’s assume that on the basis of his selection policy this month, his first choice unit comprises CJ Stander, Sean O’Brien, and Jamie Heaslip who, if the Lions party was selected today, would all be on the plane. Peter O’Mahony and Josh van der Flier would also form part of that discussion for Warren Gatland and his coaching staff.
In addition to that talented quintet, Jordi Murphy was having a stormer in Chicago until injury intervened, Rhys Ruddock and Iain Henderson excelled there in the second test against South Africa last summer while Ulster’s Sean Doyle was also capped on that tour.
Tommy O’Donnell and Chris Henry may have slipped down the pecking order for a variety of reasons but both played prominent roles in Ireland’s recent Six Nations campaigns. Jack O’Donoghue and Dan Leavy were both capped for the first time against Canada while injury has derailed the progress of another promising young Leinster international in Jack Conan.
That’s 14 contenders to start with, before even considering the merits of other recently capped players such as Robbie Diack and Dominic Ryan along with the promising Connacht trio of Sean O’Brien, Eoin McKeon, and Jake Heenan.
Last Saturday was the first time since 2010 Wallaby great David Pocock was fit to face Ireland, having missed the last three contests in 2011, 2013 and 2014. No coincidence in his absence, Ireland won two of those three. Yet such was the quality available to Schmidt last weekend that, even with Pocock and Michael Hooper, Ireland won the key back row battle hands down. Our stock has never been higher in this crucial area.
Regardless of the sport, discipline in team games is a key element towards achieving success. On that front, Ireland’s achievement in only conceding 11 penalties in three contests — four per game against the All Blacks and three against the Wallabies — this month is remarkable. A return of 10 or less per game is the accepted norm at this level. Factor in also Australia and New Zealand between them received five yellow cards over the course of those three contests whereas Ireland received none.
What are we doing in recent times to suddenly have become the referee’s pet? How did we manage to compete so successfully against those two southern hemisphere giants at the breakdown without stretching the law? We were incredibly smart and got away on occasion with taking out players beyond the ruck with impunity. Michael Cheika was apoplectic with the penalty count last Saturday, (13-3 in Ireland’s favour), even if he did manage to control his anger in public. Opposition coaches will now focus on what Ireland are doing to manage referees so well and will seek clarification on any borderline issues they feel Ireland are getting away with. That spotlight may come back to haunt us in the Six Nations.
3. Why so many injuries?
It must be a concern to the Irish medical team that, for whatever reason, this squad appear to be shipping more than their fair share of injuries. Every side is suffering on that front given the attritional nature of the game but, not for the first time against southern hemisphere opposition, we appear to come off far worse in terms of players lost to injury over the course of 80 minutes.
While Jordi Murphy was the only casualty to emerge from Soldier Field, the return game against New Zealand in Dublin finished with a far greater casualty list. Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw, and Sean O’Brien were all lost for the final game against Australia while CJ Stander and Rob Kearney were both subjected to head injury assessments for potential concussions.
Incredibly, for the second week in a row, Ireland lost three players in the opening half alone against Australia. By comparison, Cheika lost no player to injury last Saturday while New Zealand’s injury list in Dublin were confined to San Cane and Ben Smith. When you consider New Zealand and Australia are both at the end of gruelling seasons while Ireland have not yet reached the halfway mark of theirs, that casualty list is even more mysterious and concerning. On the back of losing four key players in the key pool victory over France at the World Cup, is this squad just unlucky or is there more to it? While our player management programme is hailed as best in class, is the fact the players may be less battle hardened by playing fewer games a contributory factor in any way?
I would be surprised if that was the case but I’m sure Joe Schmidt would love to identify some factor, other than just plain bad luck, that might contribute towards reducing the carnage. That way he could do something to address it. On the plus side, the absence of a number of key players afforded him the opportunity for others on the fringe of selection to stand up and make their mark.
That has been the most positive aspect to emerge from the summer tour and November series.
4. Timing is everything
In the ideal world, you would love to have bagged historic trio of victories over South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia in the season leading up to a World Cup. We have always struggled when it comes to timing our run to that global tournament and, have never reached our peak at the right time. When England defeated the best the Sanzar nations had to offer in successive seasons in 2002 and 2003, they had absolute belief in themselves heading into the 2003 World Cup in Australia that they had what it takes to bring the Webb Ellis trophy home. Without ever scaling the heights of the summer of 2003, they still emerged victorious four months later.
With three years to go before Ireland chase immortality in Japan, one hopes this comparatively young squad will be at their peak when it matters most. I have always believed that the only time being number one in World Rugby’s ranking system is of any real benefit is on the Monday morning after the World Cup final. In sport, timing is everything.
5. Bench impact
All coaches are at pains to point out that, with the increased tempo and physicality in the international game, the winning and losing of tight contests comes down to bench impact. In the past, Ireland struggled to match the impact players launched with 30 minutes to go by the very best sides, especially New Zealand. Not any more.
Ireland’s bench for the Six Nations could look something like this: 16. Sean Cronin, 17. Cian Healy, 18 Finley Bealham, 19. Ultan Dillane/Iain Henderson, 20. Peter O’Mahony/Josh van der Flier, 21. Kieran Marmion, 22. Paddy Jackson, 23. Gary Ringrose. Not so bad...
6. A Six Nations to savour is just around the corner
The 2017 Six Nations championship promises to be one of the most competitive in years with nothing to separate the two favourites, Ireland and England. Scotland have made massive strides this month and finally look to have the makings of a decent back line. France showed promise and, of even more importance, a return to a more traditional running and offloading style that stretched New Zealand to the limit last weekend.
Guy Noves is beginning to have an impact and France retain the capacity to beat anyone in the championship in Paris. Thankfully we have them in Dublin. Italy enjoyed that morale-boosting win over South Africa and Conor O’Shea is sure to make them more competitive, even if losing to Tonga last Saturday has taken a bit of gloss off that historic Springbok result.
That leaves Wales. There was a public outcry in the valleys after their opening defeat to Australia and the fact it took a last minute drop goal to beat Japan. The style of rugby played didn’t endear the side to their rugby-mad public either. However, back-to-back wíns over Argentina and South Africa cemented a best November return for years convincing all in the Principality they are not only favourites for the Six Nations but the World Cup as well. Some things never change!
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