Tony Ward: Here are the five things I want to see from Ireland in the next three games
To say the last two weeks have been confusing is an understatement. Ireland are neither the over-hyped mugs, as suggested in some quarters post-Murrayfield, nor indeed are we favourites for the next World Cup post-Rome.
As always, the truth lies somewhere in between and over the next three rounds of Six Nations games we are about to determine definitively where we are, given the completion of a full rugby calendar year at the highest level.
Needless to say, we would all like to think we are closer to the Italian experience than the Scottish one but the next three games will test the substance of the victories over the All Blacks and Wallabies to the full.
The uneven calendar years, when we host the French and English, represent the best opportunities for something special for any Ireland team.
Three on the road as against two with home comforts might seem to some a warped form of logic but the uneven years suit us best.
On balance professionalism has been good for Irish rugby and Irish rugby has been good for professionalism but I think it worth recording that for all the improvement in recent years we still trail four of the original Five Nations in matches at the highest level between the sides.
The Scots lead us 66 to 60 in games won, and only against the Italians have we a superior record which stands now at 22 to 4. The French lead by 55 to 32 and I think it worth highlighting that in Dublin the winning ratio is stacked heavily in favour of Les Bleus so can we park the bad traveller bit before the juggernaut even comes into view.
Against the Welsh, we trail 67-50 with the biggest disparity of all standing at 75-47 against the auld enemy. So this is where we are coming from as much as where we would like to think we are going and I'm as optimistic as the best of them when it comes to Irish rugby.
So over the month ahead we are facing (with respect to the much-improved Scots who fully deserved to beat us) our three toughest fixtures of the campaign and three matches very much in the balance and dependent on us being at Chicago pitch if we are to come out on top in each of them.
So what would we like to see from Ireland over the next three games? Here's my five suggestions . . .
1 THAT WE AREN'T BEATEN TO THE GEAR STICK AS WE WERE AGAINST THE SCOTS
If there is one mighty message already ingrained, it is the Murrayfield experience 2017. The "sorry Sir but the bus was late" line has a relevance but it should not have been used to mask a state of mind alien to almost every other team Joe Schmidt has prepared in times past. So even if the squad were thrown out of their comfort zone in the immediate build-up, it should never have impacted in the manner and for the length of time it did.
Coincidentally when reading Donal Lenihan's 'Life in Rugby' recently I was struck by the former Ireland captain's interpretation of arriving over half an hour late when travelling from Finnstown House to Lansdowne Road for the 1991 World Cup quarter-final against Australia - a match we could and should have won.
In his own words, "We only arrived in Lansdowne about 30 minutes before the match, which had never happened before or since and before we knew it we were on the pitch about to play in a World Cup quarter-final. The timing was all over the place. In some respects, the game was nearly on us before we knew it so there wasn't much time for nerves or anxiety to set in."
Point being that, however meticulous the build up, last-minute hitches do happen. It's called life. So for the three matches immediately ahead here's to the Edinburgh experience 2017, as with the Dublin miscalculation in '91, being turned into the positive as expressed by Lenihan when alleviating anxiety and never the opposite. Lesson learned and we move on by repeating the start witnessed in the Stadio Olimpico, albeit against much tougher opposition in the French, Welsh and English.
2 THE BROADENING OF THE SCHMIDT MODUS OPERANDI TO CONTINUE
One of the modern game expressions I detest is 'heads-up rugby' for the simple reason it implies an already existing element of heads-down rugby. Schmidt is no different to any other coach in today's professional game in that he likes to control as best he can what's going on. I prefer to interpret that another way in that he takes what he is given, sizes up the opposition and adapts what he hopes will be a winning game-plan.
To that end since 2015 and what was ultimately a disappointing World Cup there are definite green shoots emerging. Nine tries in 80 minutes of Test rugby away from home is impressive but what I loved about the Italian job was the obvious ambition from early and the willingness to use the ball from touchline to touchline and from try-line to try-line - specifically within our own 22.
It reflects a growing trust between coach and players and if it requires heads-up rugby as the name check, then heads-up rugby it is.
3 THE GRADUAL INTRODUCTION OF PLAYERS DELIVERING IN THE PRO12 AND EUROPE TO CONTINUE
Whatever criticism might be levelled at Schmidt, giving youth its fling through going with his gut instinct is not one. Primarily he picks horses for courses but is not afraid to spice it up, regardless of age or experience. If you're good enough you're old enough is a mantra I share at every level.
In specific terms it's great to see Finlay Bealham, James Tracy, Niall Scannell, Billy Holland, Jack Conan, John Ryan, Dan Leavy, Rory Scannell, Stuart McCloskey and Luke McGrath involved. Others like Rory O'Loughlin and Adam Byrne plus Darren Sweetnam and Joey Carbery (both just back) are bubbling under.
While I suspect Simon Zebo will be switched to full-back to face the French (my preference would be wing) at some stage in the coming games (given the absence of Rob Kearney) I would like to see Tiernan O'Halloran given a run in his favoured full-back position from the off.
4 THE TEAM WINNING A MINI WORLD CUP WITHIN THIS SIX NATIONS
Having lost Grand Slam and Triple Crown on the opening day, we hit the knockout rugby trail in Rome. That was our last-16 game. Objective achieved, we have a quarter-final against the French followed by a semi-final against the Welsh in the Principality all leading to the final in the Aviva on March 18 and note without any mention of the bonus point.
5 THAT WE TAKE A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY TO FINALLY CHRISTEN THE AVIVA
It's time to recreate the Lansdowne Roar. Bring it on.