Friday 2 December 2016

Alan Quinlan: This turning point can help Irish team believe in itself again

Alan Quinlan

Published 21/03/2016 | 02:30

Jamie Heaslip has been reinvigorated by CJ Stander’s inclusion. Photo: Sportsfile
Jamie Heaslip has been reinvigorated by CJ Stander’s inclusion. Photo: Sportsfile

Saturday was all about the breakdown - but for once in this Irish rugby season we are not talking about the emotional kind.

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After a rollercoaster year, we appear to be on an upward curve again.

Beforehand all the talk was about this match being a dead rubber at the tail end of the championship, even though the reality was very different, because for me, Saturday's game was a key moment in the development of this Irish team.

Had we lost, then real questions would have been asked of Joe Schmidt and his team. Have we become too negative in our approach? Have we tried to expand our game at all? Has our ambition disappeared?

Well, those queries were answered. We were perfectly correct to harbour reservations - because after three games in this championship, we had delivered the sum total of two tries, each scored by Conor Murray from a yard out.

Then came Italy. The performance was brilliant. But Italy's display was so, so poor that no one could justifiably base any firm judgement on that one game. More proof was needed that a corner had been turned.

Evidence

And Saturday provided us with the evidence.

First, to the game-plan. The attempts were there to be creative. There was an emphasis on width and also on playing at a really high tempo, on getting quick ball from our rucks and dragging the Scots right across the width of the Aviva Stadium, tiring them out in the process.

Did it work? Well, we scored four tries - more than England managed against them.

Other facets of our game-plan were also impressive. Our line-out for a start, and of course our maul - which provided the basis for CJ Stander, Murray and Devin Toner's tries - was so, so powerful.

Then there was the breakdown. Top marks have to be awarded to the coaching staff and the players in this area, and as someone who played in the back-row, I found it fascinating, from my seat in the stand, to note the ferocity with which Ireland hit the Scots.

Bear in mind the Scots, traditionally, are ruck specialists. And the players they selected on Saturday are excellent at their job. But they were not just out-thought, they were also out-muscled.

Stander was magnificent; Jamie Heaslip even more so, while Tommy O'Donnell's contribution cannot be overlooked.

Between them they made 50 carries - a superb effort, which went so far towards making sure Ireland ended Saturday's game with the right result.

Yet their hard work didn't end there. In fact, that was the starting point. At the breakdown, they got their hands dirty, constantly trying to slow down the Scottish play, whereas when Ireland were on the attack, there they were, time after time, clearing out rucks, allowing Ireland get quick ball, and to play the way Leinster did when Schmidt was in charge of the province.

It was high tempo, aggressive, relentless.

And the Scots couldn't cope. Admirably, though, they kept coming back, getting key scores at times when Ireland looked like pulling away.

Yet, even when Scotland did score, Ireland's reply was instant - Keith Earls scoring after Stuart Hogg's solo effort; Devin Toner getting his try after Richie Gray touched down for the visitors. And each score said so much about this team. That basically, they have character. That they were prepared to bounce back from a mini-setback.

At no stage did the Scots get on a roll. They threatened to. Hogg's superb try could have changed the game. Gray's score could have got them back into it. But Ireland responded each time. They fought for every blade of grass on the pitch - an old-fashioned attribute that can never be underestimated.

And, given the players we have at our disposal, we have to recreate that attitude from here on in, because we simply don't have the blistering pace in our side that England, as a prime example, have in theirs.

The cold reality of that statement forces us to try something different. We have to think our way to victory, and produce this energetic, intense display, time after time.

If we manage to do so, the future can be bright again. Saturday can be a turning in the road, a marker that we look back on, as a time when the team started to believe in itself again, when they realised they had what it takes to win crucial games.

You could see, in the aftermath of the final whistle, how much the victory meant. And you could see by the reaction of the players on the sideline, when Donnacha Ryan came off, how strong their unity was.

Rugby, like so many sports, relies on togetherness, on players watching each other's back, on guys being there to say 'hard luck' if you make a mistake or 'well done' when you do something right.

Armoury

If you have that in your armoury, you have a chance and if that sounds a little old fashioned then I make no apologies for saying it, because for all the talk about game-plans and technique - both of which are hugely important in the modern game - I'm still a believer in the virtue of having a strong team-spirit. And Ireland, quite clearly, have that.

And it isn't the only thing we've got. Even if it has happened by accident, as much as design, Joe Schmidt has more depth to his squad now than he had at the start of this competition.

Stander has delivered and aside from the fact that he should be shortlisted for player of the tournament, he has also reinvigorated Heaslip, whose performances have improved on the back of CJ's arrival. Sean Cronin deserves a mention for reaching a half century of caps (so too Keith Earls) in this tournament.

And the options at lock, in the back-row, the centre, the wings, out-half, full-back, prove that we are still a good team with room to improve. The aggression shown on Saturday will need to be replicated in South Africa, a country we have never won a Test match in, but one where history can be made this summer.

Are England miles ahead of us? No. There are deserving champions but Ireland can come again next year.

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