Let’s keep some perspective on Ireland performances

At least that’s Argentina put to bed.

For close to two decades now, the Pumas have lingered around Irish nostrils like a bad smell, and the shadow of the World Cup quarter-final loss to the South Americans in Cardiff last October polluted so much of the narrative in the build-up to yesterday’s Six Nations opener.

The wounds were still raw, the memories of an Irish side denuded both by injury and suspension and ultimately wilting under pressure from an opponent that smelled blood was merely infected all the more by the loss of another batch of front-liners for the visit of the Welsh.

It seemed too familiar, too painful.

Rewind another 11 months and there was an identical case of pessimism riddling the rugby fraternity when, with the Springboks coming to town, Joe Schmidt was busy cutting and pasting a new teamsheet and game plan due to the unavailability of 15 of his regulars.

Rory Best and Cian Healy were among those marked absent at the time, Mike Ross’ fitness was openly questioned and Sean O’Brien was another key forward in injury rehab. Further back, there was no sign of Rob Kearney or Tommy Bowe. Crisis.

When Chris Henry was taken ill with a heart scare — one that has thankfully been dealt with — on the morning of the game, it cemented the sense that Ireland were in for a rough ride against a side ranked second in the world and fresh from a rare defeat of New Zealand in Ellis Park.

And what happened?

Ireland won 29-15, a point off a double-score margin, and it was backed up with victories over Georgia and Australia. Schmidt’s response when asked on Friday if he could see any parallels between November 2014 and this week sounded almost wistful.

“I hope so,” he said.

Yet those wins over the Boks and Wallabies weren’t just reminders that the volume of pessimism was too loud. They were tailor-made blueprints as to how a weakened Ireland could account for a Welsh side bigged up by Schmidt this past two weeks.

Against South Africa, Ireland defended for their lives and hit the tourists with two superbly executed pre-planned moves, finished off by Rhys Ruddock and Tommy Bowe. Come the Aussies, it was a sprint-from-the-blocks 17-0 lead that set the foundations.

The home team managed two out of three yesterday. The defence was superb, heroic even, the land grab for the 13-0 advantage in the first half-hour a solid start. But they failed to execute the kind of training ground move that could have been the difference between the one point and two.

The fact is that Ireland continue to look less and less likely to claim five points the more phases they go through, and it is this inability to break free of an opponent’s defensive shackles — and their own — that has led to Schmidt being questioned more than ever before in the last six months.

It’s a fair point to make but some of the critical commentary directed at the Kiwi this last week has been ludicrously over the top. Pantomime stuff, in fact. Make no mistake: this is a guy who was well in credit even before yesterday’s exhausting and engrossing stalemate.

This Six Nations opener was Schmidt’s 28th game in charge and 20 had been won. That’s a winning ratio of 75%. Of the seven defeats, only two stand out as games where Ireland performed well below their best: Argentina, and the loss to Australia in November of 2013 in the Aviva.

Think back to the bad old days and even the more recent ones when, in the last few years of Declan Kidney’s time in charge, Ireland performances were surrounded in the week before by uncertainty, in that you couldn’t be sure what sort of team would turn up.

In that light, let alone any other, this performance was exceptional.

You could say revelatory but that would be to suggest we never thought Schmidt and Ireland were capable of this in the face of adversity. Can they evolve more? Yes. Should they seek to play with a tad more freedom? Sure. But let’s keep it all in perspective, shall we?

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