Wednesday 28 September 2016

Conor O'Shea: If this is base camp, then Ireland are in a better place than many think

Conor O'Shea

Published 27/03/2016 | 17:00

'I believe we have seen senior players like Jamie Heaslip step back up to a level we all know he has and should be at all the time with his experience and ability' Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
'I believe we have seen senior players like Jamie Heaslip step back up to a level we all know he has and should be at all the time with his experience and ability' Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

The trouble with the Six Nations is you blink and it is over. There is so much build-up and hype and when you look forward to something like it, as I do every year, it is gone before you have time to really take it all in. The problem with that is that the tournament can be over for your team before it starts.

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England were worthy winners and if to me Ireland look good for the future, I think England look like they are going to become an incredibly powerful force under Eddie Jones.

Next year, I will see this up close for myself as I will have the honour of being involved with Italy. I look forward to seeing if I can work to ensure they become a competitive part of the competition. I know there is both the will and the vision in Italy to do just that and I hope I can play my part in making that vision become reality.

That is for next year, though. Yes, it is a new and exciting challenge but for now, for me, my focus is very much on Harlequins and winning one last piece of silverware while I am with a club that has given me so much in the last six years of my life. Then it will be a new chapter for myself and my family.

I will go to Italy with this year's tournament on my mind. The need to hit the ground running was never more evident. After Ireland's very first game, the draw against Wales in the Aviva Stadium, two of the three prizes were already gone: the Grand Slam and Triple Crown. A couple of weeks later so too was the Championship after losing to France by a point in a game we should have nailed in the opening 60 minutes.

After a draw against a very strong Welsh team and a one-point loss away to France, the knives were out. Context and reality went out the window because the world professional sports men and women and coaches inhabit is not real, it is immediate, it is unrelenting and it is sensationalist. You go into it eyes wide open but that is where as a coach you have to separate the two sides - your insatiable thirst for a win with the reality of where you are as a team and the stage of the cycle you are at.

Joe Schmidt's end-of-term report on himself should read 'could have done better' purely because of the positions his team found themselves in but with a big tick in the box for the speed with which this group is evolving. If this is base camp for Ireland then we are in a great place.

What I saw in this year's Six Nations campaign was a team that could have executed better and won more games even as they stand; I saw a team that has had to grow a new leadership group as they were denied the services of soon-to-return Seán O'Brien, Iain Henderson and Peter O'Mahony, not to forget the retired Paul O'Connell; I saw the blooding of some new players to give them a taste for the environment and there are more young players to come.

Maybe I write from the standpoint of a coach who knows the vagaries and the margins - some are the margins you see and we all see, others are the decisions in one-point games that go your way one year and you win, they don't the following year and you lose, but you have to keep your counsel and assume that things will even out over the long term.

So for Ireland I believe we have seen senior players like Jamie Heaslip step back up to a level we all know he has and should be at all the time with his experience and ability. Heaslip, captain Rory Best, Conor Murray and Robbie Henshaw continue to grow and fill the gap of leadership that has left this team and when O'Brien, Henderson and O'Mahony return we will have a great core group to lead.

Despite the clamour for change and fresh blood, and even daft accusations that we didn't see any fresh blood, we still saw players at various times come through, whether that be CJ Stander for the entire Championship or the likes of Ultan Dillane, Josh van der Flier and Stuart McCloskey fleetingly. They all made impacts and they have all had exposure in a positive way. We know there are more coming, like the much talked-about Garry Ringrose but his time will come. For the moment midfield options of Jared Payne, Henshaw and McCloskey look good to me.

And then there is Johnny Sexton. Probably the biggest issue in Schmidt's mind will be Sexton. There is just no one near his level at 10 and if he goes down at any stage against the best it could be terminal. How he solves this problem will exercise his mind more than people talking about a one-dimensional attack or a lack of offloading. He will look forward to South Africa and joining forces with Andy Farrell and, as I said, if base camp is third place in the Six Nations, we are in a better place than people may think.

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