Saturday 22 October 2016

Irish rugby gloom starting to lift as young guns stake claim for Six Nations

Interpro derbies afforded some post-European respite for provinces - and Joe Schmidt - writes Ruaidhri O'Connor

Published 30/11/2015 | 02:30

Josh van der Flier was the best player on the pitch at the RDS
Josh van der Flier was the best player on the pitch at the RDS
Johnny Sexton gave his best display back in the Leinster blue

Only 50 days have passed since Ireland produced one of their great World Cup performances to beat France and secure their place atop Pool D.

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The skies have darkened since that memorable Sunday in Cardiff and the mood around Irish rugby has taken a turn to match.

The subsequent quarter-final exit to Argentina has been followed by poor performances and humbling results in Europe for Leinster and Ulster at the hands of English clubs, and the post-World Cup inquests continue to rumble on in tandem with David Nucifora's secret inquiry into what went on.

The schedule afforded the nation a chance to take things in-house for a weekend and it all felt a little cathartic as Leinster and Ulster attempted to lift themselves out of a slump on Friday night, and Munster and Connacht, less affected by the World Cup blues, played out a cracker on Saturday.

In Australia on family business, Joe Schmidt was fully tuned in to events at the RDS and Thomond Park and could take some solace from the derbies.

Neither was perfect, but there was enough on offer to suggest that the slump in form may just be temporary and that the gloom could well lift.

At the RDS, there was Johnny Sexton's signs of life as he combined brilliantly with Luke Fitzgerald on several occasions. It was the Ireland out-half's best performance in blue since returning and only some dreadful finishing and scrambling Ulster defence prevented his side from racking up a far more comfortable win.

In Sean O'Brien's absence, there was further evidence of the emergence of a star in Josh van der Flier, who was the best player on a pitch full of internationals, while Ulster's Stuart McCloskey gave further evidence of his talents with and without the ball as he met Leinster's best ball-carrier Ben Te'o half-way on the gainline.

Given they were destroyed by Bath a week previously, it would have been comforting to see the all-Irish front-row stand up and be counted against Ulster, who look to have serious issues in their own set-piece.

"We came in on Sunday post-Bath game as a front-row and just dissected it while it was still fresh," Ireland loosehead Jack McGrath explained.

"It paid dividends a little bit this week. It just showed a bit of pride, it is good.


"It is all well and good the front-row being p*ssed off, but you need the second-rows and the back-rows rowing in behind you. You can't do anything on your own as a front-row."

McGrath conceded that the confidence of the Ireland contingent at Leinster had taken a hit over the past month, but believes they are coming out the other side.

"You think about yourself and you think about your teammates and you think about the fans when you are losing, because it is pretty emotional for everyone even your family, they see how down you are," he said.

"Everyone has each other's back in our team. When something goes wrong I think it galvanises us as a squad. They are pretty tough days but before Leinster had won anything there were a lot of dark days and look how strong they became from it.

"We are going through a little bit of a dark patch but there is light at the end of the tunnel, we are coming out of the back of it now. It is going to be positive from here."

So, there are signs of life on the east coast, but despite Les Kiss' best efforts to dress up his side's second successive try-less performance it looks grim up north, and the Australian conceded that adapting to life as a day-to-day coach is proving a challenge.

There are no such issues for Pat Lam, however, in year three of his time at Connacht and sitting pretty on top of the league after the province's first away win over Munster since 1986.

Their fans are in dreamland, but there must be players in the Westerners' dressing-room beginning to look realistically at the Six Nations.

"There's a good few lads each week who are putting in quality performances and there's a couple who are putting their hands up," said captain John Muldoon.

"I'm sure it's only a matter of time before a few of them make the step up."

For Munster, it was another reminder of the importance of their three key internationals Conor Murray, Peter O'Mahony and Simon Zebo who were all absent, and with CJ Stander failing to provide his normal fireworks they struggled. Yet, they remain well placed and won't be disheartened.

Schmidt will learn more in two weeks when the European back-to-back games begin, but there were signs of life in the interpros and he'll be heartened by some of the new hands shooting up and demanding his attention.

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