As first-half performances go, Ireland’s 40-minute demolition of France in Dublin on Sunday was among the best Joe Schmidt had seen in his six seasons as a Six Nations head coach.
Yet he needed no reminding that this was a long way from the required level of 80-minute performance if his side are to continue challenging Test rugby’s elite, which is what this Saturday’s opponents, Grand Slam-chasing Wales, represent.
A fortnight after Schmidt described his squad as “a bit broken” following their home defeat to England in round one of the 2019 Guinness Six Nations, there was a return to happier times at Aviva Stadium as Ireland dominated possession and territory in the opening period, unruffled by the late loss of full-back Rob Kearney to a tight calf.
They ran three tries past France for a 19-0 interval lead and Keith Earls’ try from a well-worked lineout move 16 minutes after the break brought up the bonus point and at 26-0 with a quarter of the game remaining. Ireland were back with a bang, the introspection that followed the bruising loss on home turf five weeks earlier a fading memory.
The scoreboard could have been even less forgiving for the French had two more Irish scores not been undone by tryline knock-ons from Cian Healy and Garry Ringrose, while the almost complete monopoly of the ball should also have seen even more opportunities converted into points in those first 56 minutes and beyond.
The two late tries for France were scarcely deserved but did remind Ireland there is still plenty of improvement required if they are to overturn Wales in Cardiff this Saturday and deny Warren Gatland’s men a third Grand Slam of his tenure.
This too, will be Schmidt’s final championship game before he departs Ireland at the end of this autumn’s World Cup and as he looked back on his last competitive home game he had the satisfaction of a powerhouse first-half display.
“That was certainly the most dominant first 40 probably 50 minutes until Keith got the try,” Schmidt said, “even though I know there was some missed opportunities, some of them were incredibly narrow — Cian and Garry particularly — but at the same time the fact that as soon as they got a little bit of breathing space, they were back under real pressure.
“To do that is pretty difficult when you’re playing the quality of player they have so that was certainly right up in terms of Six Nations games that we’ve played here.”
That includes the victory over England in Dublin two years ago when Eddie Jones’ men were denied back-to-back Grand Slams yet this Six Nations has also seen the flip side of greatness from Ireland.
Given the way they sleepwalked into the championship five weeks ago with a terrible start of which a supercharged England took full advantage, Sunday’s strong opening against France might have allowed Schmidt to think all was right in his world once more. Yet that is not a scenario he is comfortable with.
“After the game in Italy somebody asked me am I worried? Yeah, I’m always worried. I’m worried after this. There’s some things that we need to do a little bit better. There’s some things that looked bang on target but to replicate those, it’s like anything... if you become distracted at all then there’s a risk they won’t be replicated the following time you get out there and play.
“We’ve got to stay as focused as we can on the things we didn’t do so well, obviously those two tries at the end, they’re a frustration. That line break through the middle of our defence, the scrum they won the penalty off and then off the back of that was a super kick into the corner, I’ve got to say, to then give them the lineout.
“On the other hand, that intensity we brought, to replicate that, you know, the human being, they’re not a regular machine so you’ve to try to make sure that you’re in the right frame of mind and you’re ready to go, all those things are a little bit more complicated than saying right, I can tick that box.
“I can be satisfied with that 40 minutes, we just have to put two of those together. Now, I’d love it if we put two of those together but I know it’s very hard to do.”
Particularly in the Principality Stadium, where Wales, on a 13-Test winning streak, have not been beaten since November 2017 and Schmidt has lost both his Six Nations games in 15 and 17.
“Yeah, it would be nice to tick it off. It’s not so much the venue. I know that the home crowd get right behind the Welsh team. I also know that we’ll have lots of travelling support and that they’ll be very vocal so we look forward to getting that support.
“I know last year that we kind of had a performance that was very up and down against Wales. When it was up, I thought it was super and when it was down they got some tries that were frustrating and were well earned by them but it was frustrating in that we didn’t cut them off.
“You’d be amazed how little it has to do with what it means to me, it’s in the players’ hands, it’s their domain. My job is just trying to ensure that they feel they’re well prepared, that they feel that they understand how Wales are going to turn up and defend or attack and work with the other coaching staff to try to best manage the playing group between now and then because that’s a tricky thing in itself in a slightly condensed week.”