So, the gloom has lifted. Or, at least, dissipated a little. That crushing defeat in Cardiff really took the sails out of a nation that had gotten a little too high on self-belief and perceived squad-depth.
In any event, the World Cup should be left to one side for now and our attention turn back to the Six Nations, a fantastic standalone tournament in its own right. Any rationalist could have told you before the World Cup that he quality of rugby in the south is superior. The World Cup simply confirmed this so, time to move on, hopefully with lessons learned.
Irish rugby has been less than ebullient since October, with Paul O’ Connell departed for Toulon, key players out injured and disastrous European campaigns for Leinster and Munster. Still, while we can bemoan the financial death grip that the English and French have taken on the club game, the Six Nations offers a far more even playing field. Yesterday’s game in Paris is testament to to this.
Ireland go into today’s opener with designs on a first ever tournament hat-trick but it will take at least two huge performances to lift them past a settled, superior Welsh side and an England team buoyed by both the Eddie Jones-effect and a favourable schedule.
France would have expected a natural lift with the arrival of the mastermind of the Toulouse golden-era, Guy Noves but yesterday provided a stark reminder that the French have some distance to go before they are serious contenders once more. Indeed, had in not been for a hometown call by referee, JP Doyle, Noves would have been enduring a tough Sunday in the French papers.
Along with many others, we would have been borderline dismissive of Italy but their effort yesterday game marked a continued improvement in the Azzurri’s recent performances, if not results.
Neither Scotland nor England gave much away yesterday and Eddie Jones will most likely be delighted to have picked up a maiden victory in a tricky fixture. Scotland huffed and puffed but rarely looked like blowing the door down, or even getting a peek in through it.
So, to Dublin on this afterenoon where Ireland face into Warren Gatland’s largely replenished Welsh side.
Ireland -v- Wales – Aviva Stadium, 7th February 2016, 15:00
The Rory Best era gets under way in the most trying of circumstances this afternoon. Deprived by injury of seven probable starters, Best faces a scenario not unlike that one faced by today’s opponents, Wales, in the Rugby World Cup.
The endgame of Wales’ phenomenal victory over England in September was preceded by an almost macabre set of events as an already depleted side was shorn of Liam Williams, Scott Williams and Hallam Amos, two of whom were injury replacements themselves. Ultimately, their winning try was set up by replacement winger Lloyd Williams, a scrum half in his injury crisis-free, day job.
While Wales were ultimately battered into submission by a bigger, stronger South African side, it is worth remembering that Fourie Du Preez’s winning try came about as the result of a glorious flick from Duane Vermeulen. Right at the death.
While their supplies were radically diminished by mid-October, the Welsh jigsaw has almost been put back together and they face into a fixture that has held little fear for them in recent times. True, Ireland rolled over Wales two years ago but, absences both short-term and permanent from the pack mean the visitors have the unquestioned upper hand up front.
Warren Gatland has as ever engaged in his doublespeak, citing Jerome Garces scrum officiating as the reason for benching Gethin Jenkins while simultaneously describing the Frenchman as one of the best referees in the world. Gatland knows that Ireland have struggled with Garces’ interpretations in the past but you’d often wonder if the New Zealander would be better off saying nothing.
It is the Welsh engine room and backrow which holds the trump cards, however. Alun-Wyn Jones is now the preeminent second-row in Europe, while Gatland has finally plumped for the triumvirate of Justin Tipuric, Sam Warburton and Taulupe Faletau. This highly touted though largely untried combination could potentially wreak havoc, and Ireland, already down the influential Peter O’ Mahony and Sean O’ Brien will need huge performances from a fairly subdued-of-late Jamie Heaslip, CJ Stander and Tommy O’ Donnell. Incidentally, O’ Donnell’s return is one of the few bright spots in Irish rugby of late after that horrific injury in Wales last August.
CJ Stander has been outstanding for Munster over the last season and a half but today will be comfortably the biggest challenge of his career thus far. Today’s performance will be a considerable measure of the man and while there would be no shame in being bested by the Welsh unit, a dominant performance from the South African native would lay down a claim for a starting spot even after the injuries clear up.
Things are muddied somewhat at half back. Conor Murray and Jonathon Sexton on song are superior to the tandem of Gareth Davies and Dan Biggar but the Welsh pair were far the better performers in the World Cup. That said, none of the four bring particularly good form into Sunday’s game and the major question remains as to whether Sexton can regain the form of early 2015.
Further, Joe Schmidt’s decision to send Paddy Jackson back to Ulster for the weekend must have many people scratching their heads. The twenty-four-year old is unquestionably the form Irish out-half this season and, while no one is suggesting that he takes Johnny Sexton’s place on the field, his release seems counter-intuitive to any intimation that form would be rewarded
This is probably the first time since Sexton took possession of the Irish ten jumper that concerted criticism has been levelled at him. That is not to say that his place is remotely in question but memories fade and Paddy Jackson is now a legitimate option for Joe Schmidt. Sexton more than ever, needs to put in one of those performances that stamps his authority all over the game.
The injury to Rob Kearney has thrown up an interesting conundrum. Joe Schmidt could have made a like for like replacement and moved Jared Payne to fullback. In turn Robbie Henshaw could move to his more natural outside channel allowing Stuart McCloskey to debut at inside centre.
Schmidt craves stability though and has thus opted for Simon Zebo, a winger, at fullback. Presumably, McCloskey can’t be trusted in that channel against Jamie Roberts and to be fair, you can somewhat see where Schmidt is coming from in terms of desiring familiarity. However, cast your mind back to November 2014 and you will recall an untried pairing of Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw putting in a blinding defensive performance to thwart South Africa.
McCloskey is an inside centre, he’s playing out of skin and he would allow Payne to roam as a second playmaker. And, we saw how little purchase the Payne-Henshaw combination got in Cardiff last March. We could yet be proven wrong but, it feels like the right time to put McCloskey into the fray. Otherwise, what? Let him dip his toes in Paris next weekend? Or the welcoming environs of South Africa in June?
Irish rugby is shrouded in an exaggerated cloak of gloom at present. Yes, the Champions Cup campaigns were pretty disastrous but the nucleus of a strong international side remains and, in any event, the national team comes first, now more than ever. And, our visitors have proven that a strong national side should not necessarily rely on domestic sides thriving in Europe.
With regard to those calls for an expansive game, bear in mind that it’s due to rain this afternoon and this is February, not the most conducive month to free-flowing rugby. So, don’t expect an entirely new model. Today may prove a bridge too far given the number of notable absentees but a high-tempo performance and a remove from the much-maligned passive defensive system would represent a good start to the season.
Still, Wales have the stronger fifteen and the stronger bench and home advantage means little in this particular fixture. We can’t fight logic on this one.
Wales by 3