The hunt switches to England

Ireland 26 Wales 3

February in Clonmel is usually a time for coursing rather than Six Nations rugby but when Joe Schmidt convenes his squad in the Tipperary town later this week there is sure to be as much talk of chasing down prey as you will find on the eve of any Derby.

After engineering Ireland’s best start to an RBS 6 Nations campaign since the 2009 Grand Slam and with possibly the finest performance in that time to beat Wales on Saturday, Schmidt must now train his sights on England at Twickenham.

He may well be rueing the first blank weekend of the championship given the momentum that has been built with an outstanding defeat of reigning champions Wales two days ago. Yet after giving his players a couple of days’ well-earned rest and recovery, he will gather them together in Clonmel to keep the pot boiling and plot the defeat of Stuart Lancaster’s powerful English outfit.

And if the scheming from this week’s think-tank produces a game-plan as effective as the one deployed to undo Warren Gatland’s Welsh side at the Aviva Stadium, then Twickenham can once again become an Irish playground.

Having overcome a desperate Scotland in the opener, and ruthlessly dispatched a previously supremely confident Wales side, Ireland will go into the England game on February 22 looking for a first Triple Crown since ‘09.

It is too early yet to start dreaming of a Grand Slam but the confidence this victory should give Schmidt’s side going into Twickenham will make them think anything is possible.

Ireland, spearheaded by a Peter O’Mahony-led back row that bristled with ferocious intent, snuffed out any Welsh creativity and ambition by dominating the breakdown and forcing Gatland’s players into sloppy mistakes that were punished by Johnny Sexton’s place-kicking.

The fly-half delivered 14 points with Chris Henry and Sexton’s replacement Paddy Jackson scoring tries, both of which had a driving maul from excellent lineout work at their source, as Ireland inflicted Wales’s first Six Nations away defeat since losing in Paris in 2011.

The backs, scrum-half Conor Murray and full-back Rob Kearney in particular, kicked intelligently to turn the Welsh while captain Paul O’Connell, Devin Toner and Rory Best delivered wonderful platform from the lineout and across the team, the defensive effort was immense.

It was not champagne rugby by any means but it led to celebrations nonetheless as they enjoyed their biggest winning margin over Wales since 2006.

The forensic Schmidt will find areas of Ireland’s play to work on ahead of the England game but there were so many plus points to this Irish performance that he has already recognised that the main challenge for his players will be to manage expectations.

From loosehead prop to full-back, Ireland’s players delivered all that was asked of them to defeat the Welsh and deliver a fully-focused, high intensity 80-minute performance that brought to mind the World Cup pool success over Australia in 2011.

And perhaps the ensuing quarter-final defeat to Gatland’s Wales in that tournament, when a supremely confident Ireland took their eye off the ball and were taught a lesson by the men in red, is the spectre that Schmidt now has to banish ahead of this all-important clash with England.

“It’s the next game so it’s the biggest challenge,” the Ireland coach said. “That’s the way it is. It’s huge, and I think part of what we have to manage now is player anxiety because they’re going to be made well aware, going for a break for a couple of days before we go to Clonmel, of the public expectation. We want to actually develop but that expectation does build anxiety because you know to meet that expectation you’re going to have to be bang on, on the day, and there are a lot of variables that will make that difficult to do.

“And that’s our challenge.”

Captain O’Connell, who put in another wonderful shift on his return from a chest infection, knows all about the challenge of beating the English on the own turf and has been impressed by this current, young team being assembled by Lancaster and his cohorts Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell, both of whom, along with Gatland, he worked with on last summer’s successful Lions tour.

“A win at Twickenham is massive, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve done it before,” O’Connell said. “They’re an incredibly physical side. I worked with Andy Farrell in the summer with the Lions and they’ve got brilliant line speed, they really do put teams under pressure and force teams to make mistakes with their line speed and I think they’re growing in confidence all the time. So it’s going to be incredibly difficult for us.

“I think when we saw the fixture list, even though the second game was against the champions, I think all of us in the back of our minds would have been thinking we’d be in a very good place if we were two from two from our home games but the competition gets a whole lot harder when we have to go to Twickenham and it’s going to be a big step up.”

Onwards and upwards, then. The challenges get harder and Ireland have to make sure they keep getting better.

IRELAND: R Kearney; A Trimble (F McFadden, 61), B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, D Kearney; J Sexton (P Jackson, 74), C Murray (I Boss, 80); C Healy (J McGrath, 67), R Best (S Cronin, 72), M Ross (M Moore, 54); D Toner, P O’Connell – captain (D Tuohy, 54; T O’Donnell, 64); P O’Mahony, C Henry, J Heaslip.

WALES: L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert, S Williams (L Williams, 16), J Roberts, G North; R Priestland, M Phillips; G Jenkins (P James, 71), R Hibbard (K Owens, 61), A Jones (R Jones, 61); A Coombs (J Ball, 71), A W Jones; D Lydiate (J Tipuric, 71), S Warburton — captain, T Faletau.

Yellow card: Phillips, 79mins

Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)

Game-changer

Wales will rue wasted scoring opportunities in the 49th and 66th minutes when there was still a way back into the game at 16-0 and 19-3 down respectively. On both occasions they had Ireland on the rack only to cough up penalties mere inches from the line.

Talk of the town

A massive statement from Joe Schmidt’s Ireland side, knocking over the reigning champions and putting them on course for a tilt at the Triple Crown in two weeks at Twickenham. They’ve got the job done in Dublin, but have they got what it takes to beat England on the cabbage patch?

Best on show

Blindside flanker Peter O’Mahony was immense and a worthy man of the match award recipient. Ferocious in the rucks as Ireland nullified the Welsh breakdown, he also won vital lineout ball for his side. He finished the game in the second row and even managed a touch-finding kick out of hand from halfway to inside the Wales 22.

Ref watch

Wayne Barnes had less impact on an Ireland-Wales game than his last visit in 2012 after his controversial binning of Stephen Ferris but this time the Welsh may feel aggrieved at the high penalty count against them when nothing else went their way. Penalties conceded: Ireland 9 Wales 15

Treatment table

Ireland’s second row was the centre of attention for the second week in a row after substitute lock Dan Tuohy lasted just 10 minutes before having to leave with a suspected fractured forearm. The good news was that Paul O’Connell came through 54 minutes on his return from the chest infection that kept him out six days earlier.

Quote of the Day

“It’s the next game so it’s the biggest challenge. That’s the way it is. As the next game it is massive, though. It’s huge, and I think part of what we have to manage now is player anxiety because they’re going to be made well aware... of the expectation and the public expectation.” — Joe Schmidt on the tricky two-week build-up to facing England.

What’s next?

After two Tests in seven days, there’s a chance to rest the bodies as the Six Nations goes into a down week. Ireland will reappear at Twickenham on February 22 in search of a Triple Crown to face England while Wales will have gone into Friday night lights mode the previous evening in Cardiff when France visit.


Lifestyle

AS Joaquin Phoenix rose to the podium to collect his Academy Award for Best Actor, ears were peeled as the actor made his speech about inequality and our disconnect with the natural world.Paul McLauchlan: Leading men lead the way on Oscars red carpet

She’s the Cork singer dubbed the next Kate Bush, shortlisted by Universal, the world’s biggest record label, as their artist to watch in 2020. This will be the year of Lyra, writes Ed PowerLyra: Meet the new Kate Bush - and she's from Cork

For relationships to endure, we need to be loving not just on Valentine’s Day but all year round, a Buddhist teacher tells Marjorie BrennanOpen hearts: The Buddhist approach to love and loving

More From The Irish Examiner