Monday 27 March 2017

Alan Quinlan: Glory days are around the corner - if we beat Scots

Ireland supporters celebrate as Sean Cronin of Ireland scores his team's seventh try. Photo: Getty
Ireland supporters celebrate as Sean Cronin of Ireland scores his team's seventh try. Photo: Getty

Alan Quinlan

It is impossible to make any statement about Ireland's win over Italy without attaching an asterisk to the end of it. The Italians were poor - extremely poor at times.

Yet Ireland were good, with their execution in attack, and ruthlessness in finishing this job off by half-time, suggesting that this year in transition could yet end on a positive note.

However, if we lose to Scotland this Saturday, the narrative will change once again. In such a scenario, big questions about the team will be posed once again, which is why it is unbelievably important that we sign off the season with a victory. Otherwise, Saturday may as well have never have happened. One step forward would be followed by two steps back.

I'm positive, though. Saturday impressed me, even though the Italians did not. Their failure to play to anywhere near the level they showed against France, in the opening weekend allowed Ireland the opportunity to restore some confidence.

CJ Stander: Born for the big stage. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
CJ Stander: Born for the big stage. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

And they did so in style. Nine tries highlighted not just this team's single-mindedness in their pursuit of victory but also their willingness to spin the ball wide if the opportunity is there.

Holes

It helps, of course, if you know you are up against a defence that has so many holes in it. Yet there is a case to be made that Saturday was a continuation of what Joe Schmidt has been trying to do throughout this tournament, namely to vary his tactics a little, and apply more width to the game-plan.

Glimpses of that were visible against the Welsh - when we made five line breaks - and in Twickenham. While the trip to France didn't provide much in terms of entertainment, the conditions were awful that day.

Where we slipped up in all three games was in terms of our execution and our ruthlessness - or lack thereof.

So in this respect, Saturday was an encouragement. We saw some style, some spark, some confidence - and from Simon Zebo, Robbie Henshaw and Keith Earls - we were also given a glimpse of the X-Factor. We need more of that. If we are to return to the heights of 2014 and '15, we need to be clinical in the future as we were in the past.

Ireland's Keith Earls in action. Photo: Reuters
Ireland's Keith Earls in action. Photo: Reuters

And we also need to have players with real pace in the side. England, the champions, have it with Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph and Jack Nowell.

We have been overly reliant on winning games by playing the percentages, having a good set-piece and having players who were strict followers of a clever game-plan. While that served us well in the last two seasons, in rugby, you always have to be one step ahead.

Which is why that X-Factor player is crucial because sometimes your set-piece will not function well - as we saw in the Welsh, English and French matches - and sometimes you just need to have a player who can create something out of nothing.

For me, that's Zebo. He is not everyone's cup of tea and I can see why Rob Kearney has been preferred for so long at full-back, because with Kearney, you get solidity under the high ball and strength in the tackle. The Leinster man does the basics superbly well.

Ireland's Jared Payne (right) celebrates scoring his side's fifth try with Andrew Trimble. Photo: PA
Ireland's Jared Payne (right) celebrates scoring his side's fifth try with Andrew Trimble. Photo: PA

The bottom line is, if Zebo is to retain the No 15 jersey for a prolonged period of time, then he has to convince Schmidt that he can win his aerial battles, counter-ruck effectively and be defensively safe.

And the same can be said for Craig Gilroy and Garry Ringrose, young players who have the talent to open up any defence in the world, but who need to persuade Schmidt that they can carry out the functional, less glamorous jobs without any issues.

Part of me would like to see both players involved - at least on the bench - against Scotland and certainly on the South African tour, while all of me would like to see Luke Fitzgerald, when he recovers from injury, Earls and Zebo given an extended run in the team from this summer onwards.

Zebo has earned the right to retain his place for next Saturday, irrespective of whether Kearney recovers from his hamstring injury. The bottom line is he played really well on Saturday, although his defensive positioning for each of the Italian tries could have been better.

Delivering next Saturday is a must for everyone. Otherwise the season has been a failure and the momentum built by Saturday's nine tries will be forgotten.

Should we lose to the Scots, we will be back asking questions about whether our personnel is good enough and whether our game-plans are smart enough.

In sport, you have to back things up. One win isn't enough to suggest you have arrived, whereas back-to-back victories can inject confidence and momentum into a group, which is what they need when they travel to as unforgiving an environment as South Africa in the summer.

Good teams seize opportunities like this. And if this Ireland team is to mature from a side in transition into one that can genuinely dream of troubling the Springboks, then they have to be as ruthless next Saturday as they were last weekend.

Should they do so, then we have reason to be cheerful. Because, all of a sudden, when Sean O'Brien, Peter O'Mahony, Cian Healy and the rest of the injured party return, they will come back to a squad with a lot more depth to it than we saw in the World Cup, when the removal of five front-liners effectively wiped out whatever chances we had of making the semi-finals.

Big stage

Josh Van der Flier, Stuart McCloskey and Ultan Dillane have shown they can handle the big stage, and CJ Stander has proven he was born to be on it.

And while I know it is a long way away, already I can see next season being a strong one. The fixture list - away trips to Italy and Scotland, the tournament's two weakest sides - is favourable. Should we have O'Brien and Healy fit, we can be a match for anyone.

Would I fancy our chances against England and France at home? I would.

Could I envisage a return to the great days of 2014 and '15? Again the answer is positive.

But if the future is to be positive then we need to end this present season on the front foot. A second win on the trot would suggest a corner has been turned. A defeat, though, would spark an inquest. Far from being a dead rubber, next Saturday's game is, in many ways, a pivotal one in the evolution of this side.

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