Monday 26 September 2016

Comment: Ireland battle hard to fulfil Joe Schmidt’s gloomy pre-tournament prediction

Published 19/03/2016 | 19:19

Ryan Wilson, Scotland, tussles with Jonathan Sexton, Ireland off the ball. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v Scotland. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Ryan Wilson, Scotland, tussles with Jonathan Sexton, Ireland off the ball. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v Scotland. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE

A chill, stiff onshore breeze knifed through the stadium’s accommodating corridors despite the persistent rumour of sunshine splitting the slate-grey skies.

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An apt snapshot, perhaps, of where the Irish rugby team found themselves as they bid farewell to a second successive major tournament in which they have been far from being major contenders.

After Super Saturday in 2015, this was soporific Saturday.

Wales had already made mincemeat of the hapless Italians while England were rolling their largely unadmired chariot down the Champs Elysees in the quest for a Grand Slam of dubious distinction, given the paucity of the competition.

There was nothing, it seemed, to play for in Dublin Four but to those intimately involved, there was substantially more than you might think.

Finishing in the top half may have been a conservative prediction by a ruthless coach but Ireland needed to beat Scotland to fulfil Joe Schmidt’s gloomy pre-tournament prediction.

Don’t mention the war - or cry for me, Argentina - but world rankings were at stake too as thoughts prematurely turn to the 2019 event in Japan.

And, with Joe Schmidt’s response to questions about his future underlining that only he, and nobody else, will make the decision, the fact that he may leave in 2017 heightens the sense of Ireland feeling a little insecure about themselves at the moment.

That feeling pervaded on the field for the opening 25 minutes; Ireland danced a little while CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip pounded for a mighty amount of metres; hoovering up 90% of possession.

While Jonathan Sexton missed one kick, three put his 9-3 ahead but - the inane Italians aside - Ireland had dominated the early exchanges of all three meaningful championship games yet failed to hammer home the advantage.

Stuart Hogg showed Ireland what they were missing from the visitors’ second attack, scything through a gap accommodatingly created by front-rowers Rory Best and Mike Ross to score one of the finest individual tries ever witnessed by the Dodder.

Stuart Hogg has distant relations to this country; unlike Stander; a distant antecedent is related to the people of George Best.

Ulster once tried to sign him, too and you could see why; despite Ireland’s huffing and puffing, he produced the one moment of individual brilliance that reminded us that rugby, for all its slavish devotion to systems and game-plans, retains the room for genius to flourish.

The crowd grumbled their discontent but Ireland, as they have always been, maintained unmoved by public clamour and sought a familiar bludgeon in response, the irrepressible Stander ploughing over for a try as the home side punished Scotland close in.

Not since Nelson Mandela received the freedom of the fair city has a South African been so acclaimed in the Irish capital; he carried more ball than seemed humanly possible in the first-half.

His return to the land of his birth is eagerly anticipated this summer.

Poor Hogg would soon be the villain; from Georgie Best to Marouane Fellaini in a matter of moments.

He clattered into Tommy Seymour, a man who once actually did sign for Ulster; Hogg’s elbow nearly sent his team-mate north of the Liffey as the pair clattered into each other.

It was all they could do to recite a series of unfathomable Glaswegian curses as Sexton’s delicious chip thus fell invitingly into the maw of Keith Earls.

This was his 50th try and a 17th try represents a decent percentage for one who has been shifted around the back-line throughout his near eight-year career; two of which under Schmidt he has forfeited with injury.

It is easy to forget, but important to remember, that he is Ireland’s record try-scorer in World Cup history.

Scotland lost a sin-binning period 12-0 - John Barclay was the absent villain - but Ireland still only went in 21-12 ahead.

Given Ireland have coughed up winning positions in three of their winless championship games so far, that Scotland collectively had to do reasonably little for merely a 21-13 deficit at tea-time may have unnerved the audience.

Ireland returned unbowed by any pressure.

They produced their most cohesive move of the championship just five minutes into the half and, while it may have been consummated in familiar fashion; Conor Murray diving over for his third try this spring following a close-in drive, the beauty that foreshadowed it was worth beholding.

Heaslip, prowling the open prairies, off-loaded brilliantly in midfield and his comrade Tommy O’Donnell did so too as he fell to the floor; Jared Payne showed some of his basketball skills and Robbie Henshaw sprinted for the corner he seems likely to call his own.

It was superb rugby and the forwards’ effort that concluded the thrilling episode should not demean it.

Scotland joined in the fun but their mistakes betrayed their endeavour; Ireland’s multiplied too as the game loosened, indicating the scoreboard disparity and the fact that nothing was on the line.

Ireland’s execution was always good enough or at least substantially better than the opposition, to edge this particular argument.

April 1st can’t come quick enough; there continue to be defensive holes in this ship and one hopes Andy Farrell has all his gardening done.

Ireland taking on South Africa with no defensive expertise is like taking a plastic sword to a knife fight.

All the enlightening home improvements in the world are not worth a whit if the house is in constant peril of being burgled.

There will be much tougher challenges to come later this year though and, regardless of whether or not their coach wants to plot a long-term future with this team, he must retain faith in his long-term vision.

Two successive tournament failures have forced Ireland to change their ways; the evidence is limited thus far but it remains a path worth pursuing.

The amount of errors yesterday indicates that the journey may take some time. Facing the three giants of the world game this summer and autumn will offer a more meaningful test of their renewed ambition.

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