Hugh Farrelly: Better homework and focus gives Ireland a chance of passing English test with honours
AFTER a gruelling few weeks, Ireland face their final exam this weekend and while they have done well with English in recent years, the questions have suddenly become a lot harder.
France may be struggling to turn talent into performance under Philippe Saint-Andre but England's win in Paris was still excellently achieved last weekend, particularly given where they were coming from at the start of the season.
After a toxic post-World Cup fallout, England went into the Six Nations with a team of average Premiership players and under a stand-in coach, but Stuart Lancaster's side have managed to build on their two scrappy wins against Scotland and Italy to grow into the tournament and now have a real sense of unity and purpose.
Sunday's victory has pushed them into fourth in the world rankings -- not bad for a side widely deemed to be in chaos a few months ago -- and their win in Paris (their third from their last four visits, including the 2007 World Cup semi-final) places Ireland's one victory in 40 years into perspective.
As does the fact that Wales are chasing their third Grand Slam in seven years this weekend. Ireland have been far more consistent than the Welsh in the Six Nations since 2000, and streets ahead in the Heineken Cup, but have only managed one Grand Slam in 64 years; they also fell short when the sides clashed in last year's World Cup.
It has been a strange championship for Declan Kidney's side. That World Cup disappointment followed by another opportunity lost against the Welsh first up has seen Ireland struggle to capture the imagination of the wider public in this Six Nations, but if they can round it off with a win at Twickenham on St Patrick's Day, it will be a raucous end to a more than decent campaign -- tinged with the regret of might-have-beens.
Doing the Irish report card confirms as much, especially as every mark is qualified by the outrageous run of misfortune Kidney has had to contend with, and rounding off the tournament with honours this weekend would constitute a worthy achievement.
A major area of focus after the World Cup quarter-final exit, when Ireland's attack appeared several levels below the Welsh in terms of style and invention.
Rather than bring in a new man to take over from Alan Gaffney, Ireland asked Les Kiss to double-job with his defensive duties, with help from kicking coach Mark Tainton, which would have been an immediate point of criticism had things gone wrong.
However, there have been definite signs of improvement in Ireland's attacking play as evidenced by the fact they are top of the table in terms of tries scored on 13, with Wales their nearest challengers on nine. This includes nine tries against the tournament's weakest sides, Italy and Scotland, but Wales played both at home also.
On Saturday, while admittedly aided by some ropey Scottish defending, Ireland's attack looked very good when it got going. One second-half move saw the Irish gain 70 metres when Keith Earls straightened the line impressively, followed by some lovely interchanging of passes and intelligent angles.
There has been a tendency to cut down space by running diagonally but, overall, Ireland's attack is on an upward graph.
Comment: Improved focus showing positive results, more to come.
A bad start against Wales when Ireland stood off their opponents and conceded three tries has been steadily improved upon, with the concession of just one try in each of their three subsequent games.
There has been much talk of line speed, which was superb in Paris in Ireland's best defensive display of the campaign, but Kidney is adamant that the defence has to be tailored to suit the opposition and the situation and that it is too risky to rush up all the time.
When they hung back on Saturday, the Scots were able to generate momentum, but Ireland's scramble defence is good. The official figure of 13 missed tackles will exercise the video analysis this week but only one (when Scotland's biggest player, Richie Gray, ran through Eoin Reddan) led to a try.
Manu Tuilagi is the main concern next Saturday and getting in his face to stop him early seems like the best way to quell England's primary source of backline momentum.
Comment: A tendency towards shyness, most impressive when pushing forward.
Fourteen penalties conceded against the Scots is a major concern and Ireland are having an on-going issue with officialdom.
Obviously frustrated by the acknowledged refereeing mishaps against Wales and France, especially, Ireland have been vocal in their disenchantment and, while the sense of injustice may be warranted, you wonder would it be better to keep it private.
The flip-side is that by highlighting the areas where they have been hard done by, the referee (on Saturday it is Nigel Owens) knows what Ireland are trying to do before action gets going.
Either way, there are still needless penalties being conceded and, against a place-kicker of Owen Farrell's ability, they could be game-deciding in Twickenham.
Comment: Greater concentration needed, lapses will be costly in tougher exams.
Losing forwards coach Gert Smal was a major blow, but Anthony Foley deserves credit for how he has handled the step-up from Munster at a relatively early stage in his coaching career.
Scotland went into last weekend's clash with the best line-out in the competition, targeting an Irish operation they felt was vulnerable without Paul O'Connell.
However, bar a couple of mix-ups, Ireland did well out of touch, with Donnacha Ryan getting the basics right and the Scots turning over their first throws of the campaign.
The scrum has also been going well under Greg Feek, with Mike Ross anchoring well and Cian Healy battling hard on the far side.
It was encouraging to see Tom Court and Sean Cronin contribute to a dominant Irish scrum last weekend when not even Euan Murray could do anything to halt the reverse.
Comment: Homework paying off, keep up the hard work.
Kidney has been criticised for not giving new men their head sooner but it has always been his way to allow players to find their feet before thrusting them in, and when Ryan and Peter O'Mahony got their starts through injury, they were ready.
There has been considerable change, forced and otherwise, since the Grand Slam three years ago, and there is no question that Kidney has kept good his promise of building a squad.
When Sean O'Brien, O'Connell, Conor Murray, Brian O'Driscoll and Luke Fitzgerald come back into the equation, Ireland will have access to a powerful party for the trip to New Zealand.
For Saturday, there will be minimal changes although it would be fascinating to see how Ronan O'Gara and Jonathan Sexton went together from the start because their partnership is looking increasingly impressive.
Comment: Steady but still opportunities for some lateral thinking
Despite the consistent challenges, Kidney is presiding over a happy camp. It is an area the Irish coach excels at and, after the crushing disappointment of the opening loss to Wales, the Irish response has been commendable.
In many ways, this is a party that has grown stronger in adversity but they need to gather themselves for one more surge in what will be a difficult assignment in London.
Comment: Nearly there, essential to maintain enthusiasm until end of term.