A tweak here and a favourable decision there and Joe Schmidt’s Ireland team could be contemplating a trip to Twickenham this Saturday which, if successful, would leave them odds-on to claim a third straight Six Nations title and a Grand Slam to boot.
With Italy and Scotland to follow, and both of them visiting Dublin, the back end of this campaign always offered the reigning champions the chance to pick up the pace down the mountain that will peak in southwest London next weekend.
Instead, the fine margins have fallen against them.
Schmidt touched on that last Friday in Mullingar when he was in expansive form despite the wild weather. Maybe it was the surrounds: the clubhouse looked untouched from his days spent there in the 1980s, but the welcome was warm and from the heart.
He talked about the enthusiasm of the people who turned up to watch as about 15 of his squad not on provincial duties and Nigel Carolan’s U20s went through their paces, and how that energy must be bottled if Ireland are to emerge from London with their first win.
“It’s an exciting challenge, particularly on the back of us having a little bit of disappointment, particularly against France. Again, I think we’ve played in patches as well as anyone has, but we’ve got nothing to show for it really. We need to desperately try and get something on the scoreboard.”
Therein is the key.
Ireland can grumble about Jaco Peyper and his TMO in Paris all they want, but they have been profligate with possession far too often. Wales and France were not put away when the chances arose and their inability to keep the scoreboard ticking over has been at the heart of that.
England may have lost to Wales and Australia at ‘HQ’ during the recent World Cup, but it remains a keep that is hauntingly difficult to capture and the ascension of Eddie Jones to Stuart Lancaster’s throne only adds to the challenge this week.
Jones has kept faith with a large tranche of those who soldiered under his predecessor, but there were signs against Italy in Rome of a commitment to expand their game and Schmidt certainly believes the changes thus far have been more tactical than psychological.
“Definitely, there has been a tactical change. There’s definitely different things that they’re doing in the last two games as opposed to the last four years, which is a little bit frustrating because we kind of knew the shapes and the way that they played over the last few years.”
Knowing the threats and nullifying them are two very different concepts, of course, and Schmidt insisted that it had been no mean feat to subdue the likes of Mike Brown, Jack Nowell, Anthony Watson or Jonathan Joseph under the old regime.
Utilise that calibre of back in a more unpredictable system, and under a coach who has already instilled a new belief and sense of purpose into the squad, and the task facing sides such as Ireland this week is multiplied.
Schmidt, as is his wont, listed off by name most of the likely English 23 in Mullingar, but it was his focus on the threat out back that seemed particularly resonant as he takes his injury-ravaged Irish squad across the Irish Sea later this week.
“They are very dangerous in their back sort of three or four,” said Schmidt who had at least 15 potential squad members away on provincial duties over the weekend. “It doesn’t really matter what shapes they play they’re going to be dangerous anyway and they shift the ball very well.”
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