After the defeat in Edinburgh, the perception seemed to go from glass full to glass half-empty with little consideration for rationale or perspective. Now, after the massacre of a poor Italian side in Rome, the mood is tentatively lifting once more. It defies explanation but Irish sides always seem to perform better when there is a pervading sense of uncertainty or even borderline negativity in the air. New Zealand in 2013 and again last November and South Africa last summer are obvious recent examples.
There’s no question that the Irish squad would have applied themselves as professionally as ever to training and video sessions in the lead up to round one of this year’s Six Nations, but you have to imagine that they are not impervious to the prevailing view of the media and the general public. Not that they necessarily believe what’s being said in the lead up to games but it must seep into their psyche. Alternatively, one could take the view that the Irish rugby public place unduly lofty expectations to their national side. That’s probably an argument for another day but, for now, this Irish side finds itself in a seemingly more palatable position, surrounded by tentative expectation. That said, the internal pressure to perform is, no doubt, as high as ever.
The fixture list has been kind to Ireland. Though downed by the Scots, they were immediately offered a regeneration programme in Rome, safe in the knowledge that victory was nigh on certain. France have always given Ireland difficulty, even during their recent phase of rudderless management and feckless, downright incomprehensible performances. Now, Guy Noves side are resurgent, considering where they were coming from, and they’ll arrive buoyed by a fine performance in Twickenham and a hard-fought and welcome victory over Scotland in Paris.
Throughout the fist decade of this century, Noves led perhaps the greatest club side ever, in four time Heineken Cup winners, Toulouse. While we remember the individual artistry of Clerc, Poitrenaud, N’Tamack and Jauzion, the success was built on the dominance of the Fabien Pelous-led, gargantuan pack. That team was a joy to watch, and unlike the rubbish in the Top 14 nowadays, they realised that powerful forward play can be married to scintillating incisions from the backline. While Noves’s legacy with Toulouse is redoubtable, Shane Horgan made the point recently on Second Captains that Toulouse’s heydey was more than a decade ago. Rugby has changed considerably since then and it seems that Noves’ greatest strength at this point is his ability to galvanise a French collective who seemed to have lost their way.
As we’re all taking advantage of the residency rule, it would seem trite to criticise the French for selecting a southern hemisphere-flavoured back field but they have done well to hand pick Noa Nakatici, Viremi Vakatawa and Scott Spedding. Vakatawa misses out tomorrow and is replaced by another powerful unit in Yoann Huget. As is often the case with bulldozing wingers, accepted wisdom is that opposing teams need to turn them around and take advantage of their relatively poor field positioning in defence. Ireland’s go-to box-kick game will likely be refined somewhat to include the lesser-spotted line drive into opposition territory. Nakatici doesn’t offer a huge amount in defence but then neither did Vincent Clerc and he still seemed to do ok against Ireland.
Though it’s a position rich in depth, it would be difficult to argue against Louis Picamoles being the tournament’s foremost number-eight, particularly given his recent return to the form of 2014/15. His performance in Twickenham was exceptional and he is possessed of the greatest attacking brain of any forward in the tournament. Ireland’s back-row struggled mightily in Scotland then lorded it in Rome, aided by the hopefully, temporary diminution of Sergio Parisse’s powers, but the upcoming tests will prove an accurate measure of the balance of the current Irish unit.
Whatever the prevailing view at the moment, Saturday’s performance should go a long way towards confirming whether the Stander, O’ Brien, Heaslip combo can perform effectively in all facets of the game. Stander and O’ Brien in particular need to have a plan B in tow for when the wrecking-ball approach is nullified, while all three need to establish parity on the ground, at the very least. Ireland’s back row options are healthier now than ever before and the current trio will be mindful of this.
To injury news, where the Irish Rugby fake news department was at it again this past fortnight. It’s not exactly groundbreaking stuff given the age-old propensity of hurling and Gaelic football managers to insert A.N. Other at corner forward but Schmidt’s Ireland appears to be less than forthcoming with their injury reports. Donnacha Ryan appeared to be fit for the Scottish game while the public was initially informed, with little purpose, that injury kept Ultan Dillane out of the trip to Rome. If nothing else, it’s slightly bemusing but perhaps the Irish management team feel they can gain advantage from concealing this information for as long as is possible. And, on that note, Rob Kearney returns from a seemingly championship–ending injury with Andrew Trimble replacing what must be the most deflated hat-trick scorer ever in Craig Gilroy. As has now become custom, Tiernan O’ Halloran is left to mull over just what it is he needs to do before Schmidt will notice him.
Paddy Jackson deputised more than adequately these past few weeks but, for the time being, there is still little argument over the first-choice Irish out-half. If Sexton stays standing on Saturday then this will all blow over, and one hopes the incumbent number ten is merely going through a rare and unfortunate run of injuries. While the coaching staff were glowing in their praise of Jackson this past week, it’s clear how highly they value Sexton’s leadership and ability to raise the game of those around him. Further, on a more visible level Sexton is near peerless at carrying the ball to the line, an aspect of his game that Ireland missed so dearly in Edinburgh.
For all the major advancements and scalps of the last few months there are still considerable question marks over Ireland’s defence. While they performed admirably in South Africa, bar the second test where altitude had its say, Ireland have been relatively porous since. With the exception of the facile Italian victory, Andy Farrell’s unit have conceded at least three tries in each of the past five games. And this despite Ireland controlling the majority of possession in each contest. A narrow line and lack of line speed are oft criticised but there have also been a number of missed one-on-one tackles. Whatever the ailment and more importantly the cure, Ireland could make life a lot easier for themselves if they didn’t require, on average, twenty-five points to win each of these contests. The caveat, of course, is that this is a small sample size. England, by comparison, may not sparkle but their defence has been mostly rock solid under Eddie Jones, although admittedly the latter have judiciously or perhaps fortuitously avoided New Zealand throughout their unbeaten run.
France will run hard as ever and will jump at the opportunity to move the ball wide while their counter-attacking game has been resuscitated as evidenced by some fantastic deep bursts in Twickenham. Ireland too evidenced their ability to return the ball dangerously from deep in Rome and this must continue into the encounter with France. There is no questioning Rob Kearney’s excellence under the high ball but with O’ Halloran and Simon Zebo breathing down his neck, he needs to show his the consistent ability to link effectively with his wings.
The reality is that Ireland need to win all the way home and see whether Scotland can create some problems for the English in a fortnight’s time. Talk of bonus points seems ludicrous given the defensive qualities of Ireland’s remaining opponents. If the back row click, Sexton hits the ground running, which to be fair he always does after injury absences, and Conor Murray completely sheds the last vestiges of his mini-slump then Ireland will win. But any idea of a runaway victory is fanciful.
It’s clear that Ireland are probably somewhere between the majesty of Chicago and the fitful, frustrating performance in Murrayfield. If they defend as in the latter match, then France will have a comfortable, early spring evening. That outcome seems most unlikely though and Joe Schmidt and, more pertinently his side will be aching to rise to the pitch of November once more.
Ireland see themselves as the most obvious challengers to England’s dominance in the north yet victories are the only way to further this claim and usurp the latter. An improving France will provide a stern mid-tournament examination of Ireland. Expect the home side to respond accordingly.
Straight Up Sport Prediction: Ireland by 6 (Odds Ireland -8)
Tips: (i) France +8 @10/11
(ii) Simon Zebo anytime try scorer @ 2/1
(iii) Johnny Sexton first try scorer @ 25/1