YOU often hear rugby pundits say the Six Nations is about momentum.
Well this tournament certainly didn’t follow that trend.
It was ironic that within hours of Ireland suffering a first defeat to the Italians in this competition we watched a rampant Welsh teamdestroy England and lift the trophy. This was the same Wales team we made look very ordinary over in Cardiff last month and who had lost a record eight games on the trot before eventually sneaking a win in Paris.
You have to admire their mental fortitude and take your hat off to their Six Nations record. They might be going through all kinds of change at regional level and losing their star players to France but if you are judging a country’s rugby standing on international success, a World Cupsemi-final and a first back-to-back Six Nations for 38 years is very impressive.
Defence coach Shaun Edwards deserves the plaudits because they didn’t concede a try for the last 368 minutes of the tournament. Now Warren Gatland’s decision to go for England’s Andy Farrell as the defence coach for the Lions is already starting to look questionable.
Meanwhile, Ireland’s defeat in the Olympic Stadium was very hard to watch. The injury list going into the game included 10 test players and when Jonny Sexton pulled up in training it was a huge blow.
During the match Declan Kidney’s worst nightmare came to pass as Keith Earls and Luke Marshall had to be replaced in the first half and then Earls’ replacement Luke Fitzgerald damaged his knee.
Peter O’Mahony, whose last run on the wing was 40 minutes for Cork Con in an AIL final a few years ago, was thrown into the action and while he was never exposed defensively it limited our attacking options out wide.
All tournament Ireland have been hoping for a dry pitch to play with some width. They got that on Saturday but were only able to throw 119 passes compared to the Italians’ 140.
While the backline was devastated Conor Murray, Paddy Jackson, Ian Madigan and Brian O’Driscoll were still on the pitch for most of the game so Ireland should have been able to play with more width if, as was stated, that was the Irish strategy.
The most damning statistic for me, though is that Ireland only had one offload over the course of the match compared to the Italians’ seven. Even the match between Wales and England, which had higher physicality and bigger collisions, had seven and eight off-loads respectively.
Either the run of poor results endured has affected the players’ confidence to try and offload or it’s not a focus in training or in the game plan.
Ireland is a team without the power to run over opponents so it’s important they use higher skill levels to pass in and out of contact and break defensive lines by opening the door rather than knocking it down. Their discipline let them down too and although the penalty count was 12 apiece Ireland had three yellow cards which is unacceptable and a sign of the frustration the players were going through.
I have gone on the record before about the inherent dangers of playing too soon after suffering from a concussion and despite being sure all IRB concussion protocols were followed diligently regarding Luke Marshall, the sight of him having to be escorted off the field for the second week running is worrying.
To beat Italy they had to take the steam out of their pack and our maul was the best way to do that. Unfortunately it wasn’t the weapon it had been against the French and this was mainly down to their inability to win the ball on their own throw. They lost four line-outs at crucial moments and given the fact the pack, despite the injuries, contained a lot of experience this was particularly disappointing.
Rory Best looked a probable Lions test starter a few months ago but may now be in jeopardy of missing out on the tour altogether. He is not alone as Warren Gatland will have to base his selection on past form rather than recent if many of this Irish team are to earn a spot on the plane to Australia.
At the moment out of Saturday’s starting team Cian Healy, Sean O’Brien and Brian O’Driscoll are the only certainties while Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney are likely to travel too. I also expect Paul O’Connell to go if his rehabilitation continues to progress. But that’s likely to be it.
It’s been a terribly disappointing tournament and the only positive Ireland can take is that they have started to blood the next generation. Players like Jackson, Kilcoyne, Madigan, Zebo, Henderson, Marshall and Gilroy will hopefully become stars of this Irish team in the coming years.
Our golden generation will exit the scene through injury and retirement and they will regret the lack of silverware. However, the summer tour is another chance to continue the development of younger players and add some more young talent to the roster.
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