There is much to savour and appreciate regarding Ireland’s Six Nations win over England on Sunday, and much of it comes down to the numbers.
There has rightly been praise for the performance of try-scoring man-of-the-match Robbie Henshaw but, as Donal Lenihan pointed out on these pages yesterday, the 19-9 dismissal of Stuart Lancaster’s side was about so much more than one individual. It was, as he suggested, “a win for the collective”.
Joe Schmidt’s players executed their head coach’s game plan to perfection at the Aviva, removing a strong English scrum as a serious threat, dominating the breakdown with ferocious intensity, and controlling territory through the superb game management of half-backs Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton and the aerial supremacy of their backline.
And when English discipline cracked under the pressure, Ireland, through Sexton’s goal-kicking and Henshaw’s second-half try during a penalty advantage, were ruthless in grabbing the scoring opportunities that presented. It was a truly team effort and not just from the starting XV, that leaves Ireland top of table and still unbeaten with three wins from three and odds-on with the bookmakers to win back-to-back titles. England may be deprived a number of their key players through injury but the Irish have not had it easy in that regard, either.
Ireland started the campaign needing to nurse important frontliners such as Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Cian Healy and Johnny Sexton back to full fitness after mostly long spells on the sidelines, and missing the wings, Andrew Trimble and Dave Kearney, who had led last season’s charge to the Six Nations title.
Throw in the need to bed in a new midfield following the retirement of Brian O’Driscoll and the apparent phasing out of his long-term centre partner Gordon D’Arcy; the seamless way in which Schmidt has coped with subsequent injuries to O’Brien and Heaslip at different points of the campaign so far, and even more credit is due, given Ireland are still within reach of a Grand Slam this year having already played France and England.
Much like 2009, when Declan Kidney delivered a Slam after 60 years of disappointment, Ireland still have Wales and Scotland to negotiate, albeit in a different order than six years ago but if the 2015 team can go on and emulate that side, it will arguably be a greater feat.
The 2009 Slam was achieved with a settled side building to that moment for several years with everything but a title to show for it. It was also extremely fortunate to have had little or no injury concerns. Kidney able to call on just 23 players throughout that season’s championship.
There may be an extra prop on the replacements bench these days but Schmidt has already thrown 26 players into action, and in the case of flanker Tommy O’Donnell in the opening round in Rome, at the very last minute, when O’Brien limped out of the pre-match warm-up.
That says much for the growing belief that Schmidt has a deeper pool of talent at his disposal than any of his predecessors. Kidney deserves credit for his part in that development, given he took the plunge on the likes of Simon Zebo and Iain Henderson, giving them their Test debuts in the latter days of his tenure, but Schmidt’s well-publicised qualities in bringing the best out of his players and equipping them with rigorous preparation and clarity is also reaping dividends, so that when players are called into service, they know what’s required.
So while Ireland have taken the field with different wings to last season and a new centre pairing in Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne, there has been nothing left to chance in that process. Henshaw may be the new kid on the block and his natural rugby talents and astonishing workrate are coming to the fore on the biggest stage, but that is, in part, a result of Schmidt having sat him at the knee of O’Driscoll throughout last season. While the master was enjoying the longest farewell in rugby history, the apprentice was by his side, shadowing his every move, learning by osmosis and the invaluable opportunity to pick the great one’s brains as they analysed video and trained together.
It is why when many feared the worst when Heaslip was cynically kneed in the back and ruled out for the immediate future, Schmidt knew he had a ready replacement at No. 8 in Jordi Murphy. The coach had felt confident enough in Murphy’s abilities and work ethic not to risk his British and Irish Lion back rower as Heaslip completed his recovery from a shoulder injury. And it is also why, when Heaslip was subsequently felled by Pascal Papé, Murphy was again the man to whom Schmidt turned to face the English back row at the weekend.
Wing Zebo is another case in point, a rare talent viewed by some as too free-spirited to knuckle down to Schmidt’s requirements of an outside back — yet who, on Sunday, produced his finest performance in a green jersey to nullify the considerable threat posed by Anthony Watson and, in tandem with right wing Tommy Bowe and full-back Rob Kearney, gave Ireland go-forward momentum by dominating the aerial battle.
Individuals adding to the collective. There’s no Grand Slam in the bag yet but the ingredients are there. Schmidt dismissed talk of his team coming of age with that impressive victory in Dublin on Sunday, referring to the inevitability of enforced changes in this attritional championship.
He chose instead another tack. “Is the squad maturing?” the Ireland boss asked rhetorically. “I hope so because we’re going to need that wider squad, and that has been one of things that’s contributed massively to what we’ve been able to achieve so far, getting our nose in front in tight situations.”
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