DONAL LENIHAN: Who else could have seamlessly fed in eight new players to Six Nations cauldron?

Pic: INPHO/Tommy Dickson

The Joe Schmidt era just gets better and better. So many boxes ticked as the clock ticks towards the 2019 World Cup.

A first Test win over South Africa when Ireland defeated the Springboks in Cape Town in 2016, despite having CJ Stander sent off after only 25 minutes. 

Five months later, an even bigger scalp with a first-ever victory over world champions New Zealand in Chicago. 

Last Saturday’s win, coupled with England’s recent demise, has seen Ireland’s official world ranking soar to second, tucked in behind the All Blacks.

A Grand Slam would sit perfectly with that lofty position.

To have secured a third Six Nations title in five seasons with a game to spare offers yet another sign of the significant progress made under Schmidt. 

The championships won in 2014 and 2015 went right to the wire, with Ireland finishing on the same number of match points as England in 2014 and as England and Wales in 2015 when both titles were decided by a superior points differential of plus-10 and plus-6, respectively, over Stuart Lancaster’s side.

On this occasion, with a remarkable return of 19 points from the 20 on offer, a full eight ahead of Wales in second, Ireland are clearly the best side in the tournament. 

The frightening thing is that the scope for further improvement is there for all to see. I firmly believe there is more to come from this Irish side over the next 18 months.

That doesn’t guarantee for one second that England aren’t capable of turning Ireland over at Twickenham on Saturday. We should know. 

England were in the same position arriving in Dublin at this point last season, as they were when Martin Johnson brought his charges to the Aviva Stadium back in 2011.

Who else could have seamlessly fed in eight new players to Six Nations cauldron?

Last year, at this point, England were on a long unbeaten stretch — 17 out of 17 under Eddie Jones — with the championship already retained and back-to-back Grand Slams the sizeable carrot on offer. 

Dylan Hartley’s men will remember what it felt like to mount the podium as Six Nations champions on the back of a demoralising defeat.

Somehow, being presented with a medal doesn’t feel quite as exciting as it should. Popping champagne corks on the back of a loss has a hollow sound to it. 

Ireland will remember that moment too and use it to aid their cause next weekend.

So what has happened to England over the last few weeks? How does a side that had experienced just one defeat in 25 games suddenly find itself on the precipice of three defeats on the trot?

England haven’t lost three Six Nations games in a campaign since 2006.

Jones has some serious issues to address which makes his team selection for Saturday the most interesting for some time. 

Does he abandon his long-held principle of utilising two playmakers in George Ford and Owen Farrell or does he hand his most influential player, Farrell, full rein to run the show with the No10 jersey on his back as he does so effectively for Saracens week in, week out.

Warren Gatland, with the resources of four international squads at his disposal on the Lions tour last summer, opted to abandon the potential solution, starting Farrell at outhalf in the first test against New Zealand with his England teammate Ben Te’o at inside centre. 

Gatland flipped that selection on its head after losing that opening test, opting instead for England’s playmaking option by recalling Johnny Sexton and shifting Farrell to the midfield role he fulfils for Eddie Jones. 

Who else could have seamlessly fed in eight new players to Six Nations cauldron?

With due respects to Ford, that Sexton/Farrell twin kicking and passing axis looked far more convincing.

To be fair, it proved very effective for England when they had a back row capable of getting them over the gain line, delivering quick ball. 

That just hasn’t happened in this championship, save the opening day against Italy when the variety of their attacking play caused the Italians serious problems.

That hasn’t happened since, with Billy Vunapola’s absence highlighting just how reliant England were on him to generate momentum. 

It is why Jones will preside over his most important selection meeting since taking over the reins from Lancaster. With England matched in the physical stakes and blown away at the breakdown, Ford has suffered badly.

His club form with Leicester hasn’t been great either — he was outplayed twice by Ian Keatley in Munster’s back-to-back Champions Cup wins over the Tigers last December — and England look in need of a more authoritative figure in the pivotal fly-half role.

Ironically given Ireland’s defensive vulnerability out wide in the tournament — even if there was significant improvement with the introduction of Garry Ringrose last weekend — this might be the game where England’s twin passing axis might just serve to create try-scoring opportunities.

It might encourage Jones more to stick with that system if Jonathan Joseph was performing better at outside centre, but he, too, has had a poor championship and wouldn’t make a Lions party if there was a tour this summer.

Despite the depth and breadth of their playing resources, with 12 Aviva Premiership sides to select from, England’s strength in depth has come in for serious scrutiny. 

The importance of Billy Vunipola to the set-up has been magnified further by the failure of his replacements Nathan Hughes and Sam Simmonds to make any serious impact in his absence.

Who else could have seamlessly fed in eight new players to Six Nations cauldron?

The lack of quality at open side has been even more stark. Jones ridiculed former England captain Chris Robshaw as a No7 under Lancaster’s regime, yet has played him in that role himself. 

Despite being clearly out of position, Robshaw has been one of England’s most consistent performers.

The one groundhog option open to him in Bath’s Sam Underhill was yellow-carded within 12 minutes of being introduced as one of Jones’s famed finishers off the bench against Scotland. 

An injury picked up in training before the French game has ruled him out of contention at a time when he finally appeared primed to start.

Contrast that with Schmidt’s experience, having lost his Lions Test No7, Sean O’Brien, for the entire championship. 

Josh van der Flier impressed in the opening game against France before injury ruled him out for the remainder of the tournament. 

Up stepped Dan Leavy for a first ever Six Nations start against Italy. He has been superb since, while Jordi Murphy was introduced off the bench against Scotland and made a massive impact over the last 25 minutes.

Over the course of the championship to date, Schmidt has introduced eight new players to Six Nations action in Jacob Stockdale, Bundee Aki, Jordan Larmour, Chris Farrell, Andrew Porter, James Ryan, Quinn Roux, and Jack Conan.

Who else could have seamlessly fed in eight new players to Six Nations cauldron?

That is a phenomenal throughput to oversee while maintaining a 100% record in a hugely competitive environment that extracts a heavy physical and mental toll. 

It is so unusual at this level of competition to remain successful while attempting to integrate so many new players.

The key here is that many of those players, even the younger brigade, haven’t been parachuted in overnight. Schmidt has invested time and energy in their development behind the scenes. 

The evidence is there for all to see.

With no other distractions, this Irish squad travel to London with an opportunity to cement a revered place in Irish rugby history. 

They have negotiated every hurdle on the trot, not least that remarkable 41-phase end game against France that kept the Grand Slam dream alive when it looked like disintegrating at the opening hurdle.

Just one more jump and the road ahead is clear.

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