Jim Glennon: Winning a Six Nations Championship from here would be one of Ireland's greatest rugby achievements
Only two rounds in, the real business yet to be done, but already the competitive intensity of the 6 Nations Championship has re-asserted its supremacy over that of any other series in the global international calendar. The pressures on all six teams to perform in round one, and then to steady the ship or establish a firm direction in week two, was palpable, making for compelling viewing.
Since November and Soldier Field it was impossible not to ponder a potential Irish Grand Slam, never mind a Championship. Best-laid plans, however, often come unstuck and an impressive Scottish side dished out what had once been the traditional Murrayfield beating. Within a couple of hours of the tournament’s kick-off the ‘slam’ was gone, a losing bonus-point scant consolation.
At one stage in the second half at Murrayfield, Stuart Hogg’s brace of tries seemed a mere blip as Rory Best and his team moved up a couple of gears, powering back to regain the lead. Ireland’s inability however to hold that lead against what was, at that point, a relatively narrow and conservative Scottish attack playing for penalties, proved as much a disappointment as having conceded the initiative in the first instance.
The word from the camp over the ensuing days was of an overriding emotion of anger. The golden opportunity for rapid reprisal in Rome was glaringly obvious and the anger was channelled effectively from the outset.
The manner in which they brought the game to the Italians, their physicality and intensity in the collisions together with the pace and variety of their attack, were clearly evident to even the most casual observer. One week after it had taken an hour of toil for Wales to wear the Italians down, Ireland went about the task with altogether higher levels of urgency and efficiency .
CJ Stander, and his man of the match three-try haul received deserved accolades, but the performances of Jamie Heaslip, Donnacha Ryan, and Cian Healy all caught the eye up front too, for different reasons.
Heaslip’s performance levels rarely waver, and his remarkable durability and consistency are highly valued by Schmidt. The returning Ryan and Healy, both with something to prove, more than vindicated the coach’s faith in them, Ryan enjoying something of a late-career flourish, Healy re-approaching former heights
Elsewhere, Niall Scannell had as good an international debut as any young front-row forward could hope for, and Garry Ringrose finished off a fine display with an equally fine late try. Paddy Jackson too made the most of his continued run in the starting jersey in Jonny Sexton’s absence.
While it must be said that the quality of the Italian defence was often abysmal, it shouldn't take from the impressive ambition and quality of execution applied by Ireland - a far cry from the disappointment of the previous week’s opening half.
While the sight of Rob Kearney departing was a blow, the wider squad carries a look of increasing strength. The performances of Scannell and Craig Gilroy together with the anticipated returns of skipper Rory Best, Peter O’Mahony, Jonny Sexton, and Andrew Trimble underline just how well-resourced we are for what is now the steepest of uphill battles.
Guy Noves’ France will present a challenge at the Aviva on Saturday several levels above anything encountered in Rome. The most striking aspect of recent meetings between the teams has been brutal physicality, and even if France have recently showed signs of a return to their traditional style of play, they'll still lean towards brawn over brains.
They've shown recently glimpses of an ambition to play when the circumstances are right and the traditional French focus on moving the ball and offloading from contact espoused by Noves appears to be in revival. Inhibited, however, by an obvious deficit in skill-levels and decision-making in seeking to implement a more ambitious game-plan, their basic physical power remains their greatest asset, and undoubtedly the greatest threat to Ireland.
Nigel Owens’ whistle will be important and should suit us more, and if we’re firing on all cylinders we should have enough to win the day.
Just where we go from there is obviously more difficult to predict at this juncture, and Friday week in Cardiff’s Principality Stadium will provide a major challenge. Wales have shown in recent weeks that, if not over-endowed with finesse, they’re certainly functional, direct and very physical; they’ve also proved difficult for us to break down in recent seasons.
While not the force of old behind the scrum, the centre pairing of Scott Williams and Jonathan Davies pose problems for most defences and the continuing excellence up front of Alun Wyn-Jones with the powerful back-row of Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric and Paul Moriarty will ensure that nothing will come easily to Ireland.
A Cardiff victory would be an achievement in itself, and would also set up that dream showdown with England - it doesn’t get much better than the red rose in Dublin on Paddy’s weekend with a Championship on the line. A face-off between two of the very best coaches in the game will make for an intriguing battle, but Eddie Jones’ England present such a formidable challenge that a home win in those circumstances would be the result of our season, bar none.
The anticipated return of the Vunipola brothers and others will bolster the English squad in the coming weeks and the group will probably only grow stronger as the Championship evolves; ultra-efficient, they’re as close to a rugby machine as we’ve had in the northern hemisphere. If our squad hasn't been unduly depleted by injury and we can stay in the fight physically, maintain our remarkably-low rate of penalty-concession, then a fitting championship finale will ensue. It's as easy as that!
There will be lots of ifs, buts, and water to flow under the bridge between now and the 18th of March but w ith a brace of games to come against oppositions eminently capable of beating us on any given day, a tournament decider with Dylan Hartley and his team is by no means written in stone, and the entire situation is complicated further by the introduction of the bonus-points system.
Since Rome however, the show is back on the road from an Irish perspective - vital momentum has been regained and should be further sustained in disposing of the French.
Stander and Gilroy delivered a pair of hat-tricks last week - if the collective produces a third with those three victories and a championship win over the coming weeks it will go down as one of Irish rugby’s all-time great achievements.