Donal Lenihan: Dark days but next generation offers chink of light for future

THERE’S a quiet revolution taking place in the background to this season’s Six Nations that could have huge repercussions for Irish rugby.

Donal Lenihan: Dark days but next generation offers chink of light for future

THERE’S a quiet revolution taking place in the background to this season’s Six Nations that could have huge repercussions for Irish rugby.

Twickenham might have proved an unforgiving experience as Ireland were put to the sword for the second time in five months, exposing deficiencies in the Irish make-up that this England side are confident they can expose every time the two teams meet.

Eddie Jones had the look of a very content man in the post-match press conference, and with good reason.

There can be no better feeling for a coach than the sensation which comes after successfully picking apart the opposition in the weeks prior to a game and then formulating a winning plan to exploit those potential weaknesses.

That’s exactly what England did on last Sunday.

Speaking immediately after the game, the England coach said: “I was really happy with the control we exercised over the gainline.”

That was the game in a nutshell.

Once again England controlled the collisions, put Ireland on the back foot, and used their clever kicking game — as they did to even better effect when dismantling France in Twickenham last season — to exploit the space in the backfield.

That said, Ireland had the bodies in place to cover those clever grubber kicks that yielded morale-boosting tries for George Ford and Elliot Daly in the opening quarter.

Johnny Sexton and especially Jacob Stockdale will have nightmares about their failures to deal with those kicks, but on such mistakes do games of this nature swing.

The real problem for Ireland stemmed from the fact they generated nothing like the momentum England managed. This was due primarily to the fact that too many players were left challenging the gainline from static positions, which made it easier for a team with England’s power and punishing line-speed to deal with them.

It enabled the hosts to use their defence as an attacking weapon. Nothing highlighted this more than the statistic confirming that England made 32 dominant tackles — one’s where the ball-carrier is propelled backwards — in the game. In contrast, Ireland made eight.

The massive psychological energy generated by continually driving your opposition back not only injected an adrenaline rush into the players but also energised the vocal England support in the ground.

What was also evident was Ireland’s skill deficiency under pressure was also evident, with too many passes being shovelled across the line to players in less favourable positions. Ireland need to be more dynamic in the carry and in their ability to offload out of the tackle.

When the IRFU’s performance director David Nucifora conducted his post World Cup review, one of the outcomes identified was the need to continue developing the skillsets of the Irish players. This is a challenge that has now been set for the provincial academies.

The handling which the Japanese players displayed against Ireland and throughout the World Cup highlighted a skill deficiency in our players. When you are playing against teams with more explosive power, as England and South Africa have, you must find a way to play around them.

Japan mastered that ability in so many ways at the World Cup, even if it wasn’t sufficient to cope with the raw physicality of the Springboks in the quarter-final. There is a chink of light on the horizon however, and we have seen a glimpse of that in the curtain-raiser to all of Ireland’s games in the 2020 Championship.

While I fully accept there is more space available and that opposing defences aren’t as explosive or as organised at that level, the Irish U20 side are not only winning trophies — with a Triple Crown already in the bag to follow last season’s Grand Slam — but are doing so playing a style of rugby that signals the way forward.

Their 21-39 win over England in Northampton last Friday night was the best display I have seen from an Irish side at that level.

They play a different way to their senior counterparts, helped in no small way by the impressive handling skills evident from their athletic forwards. The manner with which the front five, most especially tighthead prop Thomas Clarkson, second-row pairing Brian Deeny and Tom Ahern, backrowers Sean O’Brien and captain David McCann look to offload out of the tackle is really encouraging.

The same was true last season with the likes of Josh Wycherley, Dylan Tierney-Martin, John Hodnett, and Scott Penny equally comfortable on the ball.

Allied to that is decent footwork, which enables them get their hands beyond the tackle and pop a pass to a supporting runner. You will go a long way to see a better try than the one scored by impressive U20 inside centre Hayden Hyde against England after two sumptuous offloads from O’Brien and winger Ethan McIlroy.

Developing those evasion and passing skills means you don’t have to play through the opposition, but around them. There is a new generation of Irish player coming through the system and I’ve no doubt several will make the step up to the full international side in the not-too-distant future.

The impact one of the most recent recruits from the U20 ranks, Caelan Doris, made off the bench against England means he has to start against Italy and in Paris. The summer tour to Australia also affords Farrell the chance to bring a few more of those younger talents on board in order to fast-track their development.

THE standout game of the weekend was the classic in Cardiff with the French backing up their impressive opening to the tournament with their first win on the road.

The fact that it was Wales — against whom they lost, despite racing into very decent leads, in their last two encounters in the Six Nations and the World Cup quarter-final — will be worth its weight in gold to these French players.

If Andy Farrell requires further evidence as to how quickly graduates from the U20 grade can make their mark, then this current French squad is brimful of examples, with several having graduated from their back-to-back Junior World Cup winning sides of 2018 and 2019.

You could see what it meant to former French captains Fabien Galthie and Raphael Ibanez, head coach and manager respectively, at the final whistle.

This win offered further evidence of just how far this French side is progressing and how willing the players are to take on board the instructions and promptings of the revamped coaching ticket.

This is most obvious in the manner with which they defend. Much has been made about the addition of Shaun Edwards to the French coaching ticket. Everybody knows just how energised and passionate he is about his role and the constant pressure he puts on players to get up off the ground and back in the defensive line.

For far too long, French players were lazy when it came to their defensive responsibilities. The tendency was to leave the job to someone else. Given the significant cultural differences that a foreign coach has to negotiate when coaching in France, many thought Edwards’ style and approach might prove too difficult to impose. Clearly, that hasn’t been the case.

The manner with which the French defended their line in the crucial period before half time was probably the most revealing aspect of the new regime. In recent times, the yellow card handed to their excellent No. 8 Gregory Aldritt, a minute before the break, would have been used as an excuse by some to justify leaking a try.

Unlike their predecessors, this group weren’t prepared to take the easy way out. Each and every French player stood up to be counted.

Couple that new-found steel with the undoubted skill levels coursing through this team, and you have a really potent mix.

No wonder Galthie and Ibanez were so animated at the end.

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