DONAL LENIHAN: Time for Ireland to turn pressure into points

If Ireland are to salvage something tangible from this season’s Six Nations championship, then Twickenham is the place to do it.

Next weekend’s sequence of games will go a long way towards deciding the destination of honours with two pivotal games, one in Cardiff on Friday night where Wales and France meet, and the other in London when Eddie Jones and Joe Schmidt go head to head for the first time.

Sadly, once again, it appears the meeting of Italy and Scotland in Rome will decide the destination of the wooden spoon, even if both sides have enjoyed spectacular moments over the opening two weekends of championship action without having anything to show for their valiant efforts.

The Italians were really impressive for first 55 minutes against England before losing their way after handing an intercept try to Jonathan Joseph. Against France in the opening round, they were robbed by a poor refereeing decision from JP Doyle, which enabled France to win at the death with a great penalty kick from Jules Plisson.

Scotland too have had their moments and were excellent against the Welsh last time out before falling away once again.

That backdrop means if Ireland fail to beat England on Saturday, then our last two games against Italy and Scotland will become altogether more challenging, even in Dublin.

Despite the forensic analysis over Ireland’s failure to win either of their opening two games, Joe Schmidt’s side is on a points differential of -1, and both contests against Wales and France could so easily have been won.

Two very basic reasons contributed to the fact that Ireland failed to close out both contest s— a failure to convert pressure in the opposition half into points (something this team excelled at in the past) coupled with an ever increasing injury list.

The latter is one that must be taxing the management team, especially the medical unit within the group.

After a very physical contest in Paris, why have three Irish players, Sean O’Brien, Dave Kearney and Mike McCarthy been ruled out for the rest of the championship, while France sustained no injury of any note?

Why have so many forwards— Richardt Strauss, Cian Healy, Mike Ross, Paul O’Connell, Iain Henderson and O’Brien — fallen victim to very serious, and in O’Connell’s case career ending, hamstring injuries over the last two seasons?

All this at a time when the Irish system is hailed as the best in class in terms of player management.

Wales beasted their players in pre-World Cup camps in Qatar and Switzerland and subsequently amassed an inordinate amount of injuries over the course of their World Cup campaign. Coincidence or not?

How much punishment can the body take before breaking down? Are the Welsh reaping the benefit of that hard work now with their squad in rude health in Six Nations championship? Even Dan Bigger, who was forced off against Ireland with a nasty looking ankle injury, was able to recover in six days to feature against Scotland.

As was highlighted in our defeat to Argentina at the World Cup, we simply don’t have the reserves of strength to cope with the growing injury list that has derailed our World Cup and Six Nations championship challenges. That is not an excuse, just a fact. In the circumstances that is why I categorised Ireland’s opening draw against Wales as one of Schmidt’s finest moments at the helm.

Unfortunately that effort left the team somewhat drained for the French game

What I fail to get my head around is how the French in particular, given they are not as physically well conditioned as our players, are able to withstand the rigours of the modern game better than our players. Perhaps they are simply more battle hardened from playing more games than we are.

What we do know is that when the tempo of the game is elevated beyond a certain point, as New Zealand managed in registering 62 points against them at the World Cup, the French are unable to cope.

Unfortunately given the adverse weather conditions that prevailed for the game in Paris, that was never going to happen. On Friday night, France are back at the scene of that New Zealand massacre and with the roof closed, you can be sure that Warren Gatland’s men will seek to force them out of their comfort zone once again.

As for Twickenham, there has been much debate as to what team Schmidt will announce tomorrow, especially as he hinted during last week’s training run in Mullingar that some new faces may well be unveiled before the end of the championship.

I suspect the possibility of that will be dependent on the outcome of Saturday’s clash in London.

Schmidt has never been one to hand out cheap caps or take risks for the sake of it. Every selection he makes is carefully weighed and analysed and must stack up on its own merits. That is why I don’t anticipate any deviation from the norm when he announces his side at lunchtime tomorrow.

The only possibility for notable change is dependent on the fitness of Jared Payne. If he is ruled out, then Stuart McCloskey must come into consideration. With Mike McCarthy also ruled out, Connacht’s Ultan Dillane could well win a first cap off the bench.

Keith Earls looks certain to return along with Donnacha Ryan and Mike Ross up front but that could well be the sum of the changes. Highlighting a void in leadership for our defeat in Paris is quite extraordinary in my view, given the experience Ireland had on board against a French side who were barely introduced to each other before the game. The bottom line is France were on the rack in the opening half and we were unable to put them away.

They hadn’t a single player with over 50 caps while Ireland had the likes of Rob Kearney, Andrew Trimble, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Jamie Heaslip, Rory Best, and Sean O’Brien on board from the outset.

That should have counted for more but, for some reason Ireland sat back and allowed France to bully them. That can’t be allowed happen in Twickenham.

As for the notion of player welfare, the treatment of players within Guy Noves’ French squad last weekend tells you everything you need to know about where that fanciful notion sits with those charged with running the Top 14.

Of the 23 man squad that featured against Ireland in Paris last Saturday week, 13 saw game time in the French Top 14 last weekend, despite the fact that France face Wales next Friday night.

We all saw the effect of a six-day turnaround on the Irish players at the Stade de France but that was out of the control of Joe Schmidt or the IRFU. Inexplicably, Toulon played French captain Guilhem Guarado for 60 minutes against away to Oyonnax last Sunday, waiting until they were 34-6 up before taking him off.

He now faces a five-day turnaround before what promises to be another intensely physical encounter against Wales, not to mention the amount of travel he also has over that period. What chance has he? On the basis of the number of players forced into club action last weekend, what chance have France?

The game is in danger of spiralling out of control. The biggest losers in the ongoing battle between the club owners and benefactors in France and the French Federation are the players themselves.

Someone better recognise quickly that without them, we have no game.


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