Ruaidhri O'Connor: Grand Slam should be Ireland's target
Fruitful second half of 2016 leaves Schmidt's side poised to reap rewards in Six Nations
Published 29/11/2016 | 02:30
The November rain stayed away and Ireland made hay. A year on from the bleakest of winters for Irish rugby, there are green shoots all over the place.
Since a Six Nations which saw Ireland struggle to shake off their World Cup hangover, Joe Schmidt's side have made very real progress. The scalps of all three Southern Hemisphere giants have been taken, while the coach has signed on until the 2019 World Cup.
Despite disruption throughout the seven games since the spring, they have managed to achieve a consistent performance level that will stand them in good stead for the coming challenges.
They have lost big names, played with 14 men and experienced adversity against the best teams in the world and managed to stay competitive to the extent that a 50pc success rate in the six fixtures against the 'Big Three' is something that they'll look back on with regret.
In all three defeats - the two in South Africa and the second Test against New Zealand - they had their chances to win.
Traditionally, Ireland could hit highs on one-off occasions, but their ability to back up performances is the real mark of progress in the second half of 2016.
In the last two weeks, they were offered excuses not to perform that other teams would take. In both games, they lost three starters by half-time but they stayed in the game and adapted to the situation.
Their belief levels remained strong and in Chicago and again last weekend against Australia, they arrested the momentum of games and turned them back in their own favour.
Ireland's discipline was exemplary: they conceded 11 penalties in the three Tier 1 games while their illustrious opponents gave up 39 between them. Ireland had no yellow cards, New Zealand and Australia had five.
Perhaps most importantly, they played with ambition throughout, scoring five tries in Chicago and dominating possession and territory in the return in Dublin despite coming up short on the scoreboard. Against Australia, they scored three tries and could have had more. The weather helped, but positive play got its reward.
It all bodes well for the Six Nations, where Schmidt will be attempting to win a Grand Slam for the first time at the fourth attempt.
It won't be a stated goal, but when champions England arrive in Dublin on the final game of the tournament, Schmidt will hope to be going for the clean sweep.
Scotland have improved, but Ireland have always had their measure under Schmidt, while Italy are finding their way under Conor O'Shea. France come to Dublin in week three and are usually fading at the mid-way point, while Wales' win over South Africa doesn't mask the sense that they are a declining force.
England remain the best side in Europe, but they appear to have lost Billy Vunipola for the tournament. They could be looking for a world-record equalling 18th win in a row on March 18 and the locals would relish nothing more than stopping them in their tracks.
Eddie Jones' men are second on the world rankings below New Zealand and will rue the fact that the schedule has denied them a chance to take on the top dogs.
The Aussie native was almost delighted that Elliott Daly got sent off in last weekend's win over Argentina because it presented his team with a new challenge. After securing a Grand Slam and a clean sweep in Australia in June, there is a sense that Jones has learnt little about his charges.
They are enduring a more attritional season this time around and the Six Nations almost always comes down to the team who can avoid injuries for the duration.
Rory Best made the point that Ireland's 2014 and 2015 Championships were built on consistent selections and, while they've demonstrated an ability to survive disruption and adapt week to week, Schmidt must feel he is due an injury-free run.
Having signed on for the remainder of the World Cup cycle, the coach has invested heavily in building depth: 18 debuts have been handed out in 2016 and while some of those new faces won't be seen until the summer tour of the United States and Japan, the likes of Josh van der Flier, Garry Ringrose, Finlay Bealham and Ultan Dillane are now firmly part of the selection picture.
Any Irish squad that can afford to initially leave Peter O'Mahony out of the equation is always going to be strong and the performance of the Munster captain, Cian Healy and Simon Zebo off the bench last weekend showed the benefit of competition.
All three responded to being omitted with a performance that helped secure the win.
A year ago, the picture looked bleak after a disappointing World Cup finish and an under-performance by the provinces in Europe. The upcoming back-to-back Champions Cup games afford an opportunity to build on the November momentum by addressing the Anglo-Irish imbalance of last season.
Leinster, Munster and Connacht all face fixtures against Premiership opposition before Christmas.
Schmidt will assemble his troops over Christmas and look to build on a profitable November by addressing the issues he feels his side can work on. Even immediately after beating Australia, there was talk of improvement.
The ceiling for this team is high, the coach can afford to rotate like never before during the Six Nations because of a new-found trust that has come about as a result of the young guns' performances in the last few months.
In public, the words Grand and Slam will be banned from the discourse, while any mention of the Lions will be met with platitudes and diversion.
Behind closed doors, there will be a clear focus on building on an excellent body of work in June and November.
There is nothing to fear in February and March. They should aim as high as they can go.