Ah here c’mon now, how negative can we be? All the buzz since last Saturday’s emphatic win over France, Irish rugby fans all over have been harping on about how we still don’t look great and there is still work to be done. I won’t disagree with that second point but, we’re looking better than ever guys and here’s why. Remember back a few years, just before David Wallace’s career ending injury? Remember when The Bull hung up his boots and we crawled into a humiliation in Twickenham two years ago? Do you remember, this time last year, wondering what the hell we would ever do without that fella wearing 13 on his back? Well what we have done since all of these things is win five games in a row, two against top 3 southern hemisphere teams and one against a side who up until last year had only suffered three defeats from us in this century. What I’m saying is – stop focusing solely on what happens on the pitch and take a step back. Ireland are neck and neck with England for the title of best team in Europe, neck and neck in the Six Nations race too and most importantly – they’re winning. Up until the “Golden Generation” arrived we would always be happy with the win. Dirty wins like Scotland 07, it didn’t matter. Then we became seriously good, always managing to score but more and more we couldn’t manage to win. Now it’s all about the win. Not that Ireland at this moment in time are playing ball up the jumper rugby and that’s that rather there are tailored game plans (and cards being held with a World Cup later this year). Ireland scraped past France and should have had another point or two on Italy but they won.
It has been 13 years since Ireland did a back to back on France, longer again since Ireland went four games unbeaten against them and regardless of performance they are one of only two teams in front line contention for the Six Nations title. How easily we forget that only two years ago we were being beaten by Italy and coming second last in the competition. I agree that under Joe Schmidt the expectancy is that Ireland will play a certain style but we are still only just barely a year seeing Ireland under his tutelage. Couple that with the fact that Ireland are not just “hanging on” for these wins. Against Italy it may have looked a little hairy at times but Ireland were never actually at any risk of losing the game. So too against France, even when Les Bleus got their second wind, Ireland held out front up on the gain line and held out the resistance. A lot has been made of that game against the All Blacks and how the crushing nature of the defeat has left an imprint on this team. In a shocking move, I’m going to agree with this one. That wasn’t just a last minute loss, it was an avoidable one.
Sean O’Brien famously mused after the defeat that the team needs to trust one another more. Trust that each player possesses strong skill sets individually, trust that they all know the plan inside and out and above all else trust that the defender will get there. On Saturday, Simon Zebo was single-handedly sending France packing with an exceptional choke tackle. Yes, O’Brien came in with some assistance to finish the job but it was significantly different from the four or five player dog pile from games of old where the kitchen sink was thrown at the win. My point is that even at the eightieth minute the team remains composed and the plan is followed. Zebo was under scrutiny for his defence only a few months ago, many thought it was what was keeping him out of Joe Schmidt’s plans. Now, he has been turned into a defensive animal (and his long pass off his right hand has become mesmeric, particularly for a leftie). Schmidt evolves players under his watch and yes, maybe some of the high flying try scorers like Zebo and Tommy Bowe have seemed somewhat anonymous in the opening rounds but they have just had other work to do.
Zebo has been essential in defence and vital in setting others up as mentioned above and Bowe has been Ireland’s greatest weapon under the high ball – an area he was already exceptional in and has now become a master. The aerial battles between him and the likes of Leigh Halfpenny in three weeks will be electric. But the point of all of this is that so far Ireland have only been doing what they have to do, and not in the bare minimum sense. They have been doing so in the sense that Schmidt and Co. know what they want and will set the game plan out in whatever way that can be achieved. Maybe against England we’ll see some slice and dice rugby, if it is determined that the game plan requires it. Chances are it will seeing as the likelihood of holding out that back line for the entire game is slim and Ireland will need more than kicks to surpass the scoreline. But whatever the plan, Ireland will go into the game with the best possible strategy make no mistake, whether or not it plays out favourably is, as always, in the hands of the rugby Gods. Stick with it, there’s a hell of a lot of rugby to be played.