With a few days to reflect on events at the Millennium Stadium, I am even stronger in the belief that Ireland’s defeat in Cardiff will serve more purpose in the long run.
A record-breaking run of 11 games coupled with the strong likelihood of a Grand Slam-capturing 12th in Edinburgh would have sent the country into a tailspin on the back of that magnificent achievement.
With only two Grand Slams in our locker to show for 141 years of toil and effort, that significant milestone should never be scoffed at and would have elevated this current squad into the realm of greatness.
In the cold light of day, however, the evidence of last weekend’s defeat and the shortcomings exposed suggest that this side, impressive and all as they have performed since Joe Schmidt took the reins, has a way to travel yet to achieve immortality.
I strongly believe this group of players and management has what it takes to break through the glass ceiling at the World Cup and make the semi-final that is well within our capabilities. The issue is that we had started to become to predictable and easy to read and Warren Gatland confirmed that suspicion by taking away all the elements of our game that had provided a competitive edge up to this point.
Ireland’s games had begun to follow a familiar pattern in recent times — fast out of the blocks, dominating the opening quarter through an excellent kicking game, and dominance at the breakdown. The final quarter saw a shift with Ireland protecting a lead and happy to rely on a well organised defensive effort to close matters out.
Schmidt and his management team needed to find out just how the side would react to chasing a game and how they would adapt and adjust when matched in the aerial battle and in breakdown efficiency. Now they know.
Team sponsors ‘3’ hit the nail on the head with their imaginative series of television adds featuring Paul O’ Connell, Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw when declaring that to win international matches “all it takes is everything”. Unfortunately Ireland fell short on that front on Saturday for the first time in ages while Wales, especially in terms of that herculean defensive effort, couldn’t have delivered any more.
They left every last ounce of energy on that hallowed turf and it showed just how much the victory meant to the them with their reaction on the final whistle.
Wales were under intense pressure to convince themselves as much as everyone else that they still had what it takes to compete with the best. Given the quality and individual talent in their squad, it was always on the cards that they would deliver a performance as complete as the one that derailed Ireland last weekend at some stage. It was also a mark of the respect they had for this Irish team that they knew it would take a monumental performance to beat them.
So where does Joe Schmidt go from here? With only two meaningful training runs available before the championship decider against Scotland next Saturday — let’s not lose sight of the fact that we are still in a strong position to retain a championship title outright for the first time in 66 years — I don’t anticipate any great change in terms of selection or approach.
Scotland lack the qualities that enabled Wales to negate our well documented strengths and Schmidt will not make change for change sake. But he will sit down at the conclusion of the tournament and conduct a thorough review of the team and individual performances and identify the areas that need to be addressed to make Ireland an even more difficult side to beat at the World Cup.
Much of that will revolve around our use of the ball and how we can stretch well-structured defences like Wales last weekend. For all the positives to emerge from the championship, the most glaring statistic is that Ireland have only registered four tries, including a penalty try from a line out maul, in the championship to date. Even Italy have managed two more than us. That compares with sixteen when Ireland lifted the trophy last season.
For all the positive contributions made by Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw this season — and Payne was one of our better performers with ball in hand against Wales — it is impossible to replace the experience, synergy and rugby intellect that the midfield axis of Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy brought in the heat of an international test match.
Schmidt has reason to look at this fledgling combination once again in the knowledge that Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls are consistently putting their hands up with Leinster and Munster. I still believe, however, that Earls is more effective at the very top level when operating in the back three.
The other player who must be pushing hard for inclusion for a starting slot is Ulster’s Iain Henderson. He continually makes a big impact off the bench and it is only a matter of time before he becomes a key member of Ireland’s front five. He has what it takes to be the custodian of that jersey for a long time to come.
That said Devin Toner has enjoyed a highly influential season and Henderson may have to wait until O’Connell decides to take his leave. On the basis of the captain’s performance in Cardiff, he may well decide to kick on after the World Cup and finish his career with one more assault at a Grand Slam.
Either way he has earned the right to postpone that decision until the William Webb Ellis trophy has found a new home on October 31st.
On the evidence of what we saw in Rome last Sunday, when two of our Pool D World Cup opponents came face-to-face, Ireland has been handed as favourable a draw as you could wish for. Despite racking up twenty nine unanswered points, France were putrid. I have never seen them make so many basic handling errors while Italy looked as if they were still celebrating their win over Scotland. They never turned up.
After winning against the odds in Murrayfield, Italy went back into their shells and with so many injuries at out-half and centre, they’ll struggle to contain Wales. That is bad news for Ireland as Wales have the capacity to run riot especially if Sergio Parisse, who also went off injured last Sunday, is ruled out of action. The only worry for Wales is a front row injury crisis.
As for Ireland, all they can do is concentrate on the job in hand against a Scottish side that has also been badly hit by injury. It has been a championship of ‘what ifs’ for them. They could have beaten France in Paris first up and should have beaten Wales in Murrayfield.
They threw away the game against Italy and fell apart in the second-half at Twickenham having led at the break. Yet they have won their last two outings against Ireland in Edinburgh and will seek to make life difficult for us as they are desperate to avoid yet another wooden spoon.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved