I was a little negative last week, I accept that. I don’t think it was unjustified but I am certainly happy to be proven wrong. For the second time in 6 years Ireland have spoiled the English Grand Slam party and by doing so on Paddy’s weekend have left a certain sheen on their 2017 Six Nations campaign. A sheen can be dangerous though, and Ireland’s shortcomings this season cannot be forgotten.
Let’s skip the pessimism for just a moment though and have a look at the Ireland team who once again proved that nobody makes us their 19th consecutive win. England came to town the perfect outfit. 18 games unbeaten with a substantially tougher run of fixtures than the All Backs had when they achieved the same feat last year – this was a team that brought a massive threat with them. I would agree with the consensus though that the pitiful display from the Scottish the week before was the worst possible preparation for Eddie Jones’ charges. They got a walk in the park ahead of heading to their own personal hell, Paddy’s weekend in a venue that has now well and truly become a fortress for this Irish side. That isn’t to say that they didn’t make life difficult for Ireland, this was a nerve shredding test, but no amount of late withdrawals and losses to injury was going to hamper the home side. Kieran Marmion has well and truly cemented his place as the number two to Conor Murray after a blistering performance commanding the pace and precision of the backline. Sure, his box kicks need work but in his defence, box kicks are rarely if ever part of the Connacht system so this will come over time.
As many had clamoured for and expected Peter O’Mahony turned out to be a decisive figure on the pitch too. The calls that Schmidt played a sneaky hand and that Heaslip’s late departure was tactical are nonsense, but damned if it didn’t work out extremely well. O’Mahony was an absolute beast on the pitch, never more so than with his superb lineout steal right at the death, the moment that surely was the winning of the game. Heaslip has had an on/off Six Nations, though I would say the calls for him to be dropped for good are a little premature, but O’Mahony is a supreme lineout operator and his excellence in this field on Saturday really does make you wonder why it took so long for him to start. And here comes the pessimism. As much as Saturday was a joyous victory and an extremely solid performance, we have to stop requiring these levels of emotion to reach these heights. Down to 14 – and then 13 – in South Africa, facing 111 years of losses in Chicago and now once again being asked to do the other nations a favour and stop England from winning a Grand Slam – I mean it’s enjoyable stuff on the day, but none of it comes with silverware.
Ireland are not alone in this, but looking back this will be seen as a frustrating Six Nations at best. Chances were missed in Scotland and Wales but absolute class was shown against France and England. The Scots and French join us in the two loss club, yet we sit atop them on the table due primarily to that demolition of Italy. Every bad side of this year’s tournament has it’s own silver lining. Hindsight will prove to be immense in the judgement of this tournament if I’m being honest, as it is extremely hard to tell if this will go down as “another one of those years” or the beginning of something wonderful. A development tour of the USA and Japan this summer is extremely welcome given that Schmidt hasn’t really had one before. Once we hit the mid point, and once the Lions tour is over, the World Cup hype train leaves the station. The age old debate raises its head at this point every World Cup cycle – can we sacrifice some Six Nations titles for the greater good of the Webb Ellis Cup? No coach or player would ever say that they would do so, nor would it ever likely be the intent, but if teams try new things and venture down new avenues in an effort to strengthen their future chances at glory then the end will justify the means. Schmidt is now on a run of two poor Six Nations showings, but let’s not forget that this year was still an improvement on last all the same. Time, and particularly this summer, will tell what way the curve is going.