Tony Ward: Three reasons to be positive for the future of Irish rugby
Published 01/03/2016 | 02:30
Ireland are second-bottom of the Six Nations table, without a win in four Tests, yet for me, the glass is half full. Because Saturday was the day three young players confounded the doubters and came of age.
Yes, on balance the better team won, but not before they had been pushed to the limit in a second half in which Ireland managed to create four clear-cut try-scoring opportunities.
It's still not pretty, but through small steps we are expanding the vision.
You cannot buy experience and as Josh van der Flier, Stuart McCloskey and Ultan Dillane discovered on Saturday, there is only one way to get it.
The changes were enforced by injuries, but in his defence Joe Schmidt went with Van der Flier ahead of the more obvious selection in Tommy O'Donnell, and the decision worked.
Schmidt is good at going with his gut, based on what he sees in training, but it had appeared of late that his normal clear-sightedness had become blurred in the carnage of the opening fortnight.
We have two home games to come and while both are clearly winnable, the Scottish game in particular is fraught with danger.
I certainly wouldn't take Italy for granted next up, but that game is a golden opportunity for measured change, as we look for greater depth.
Vunipola the difference
But back to Saturday's encouraging defeat at Twickenham. It sounds simplistic to suggest that Billy Vunipola was the difference between the sides, but in this match of such narrow margins he was.
England's wrecking ball of a No 8 kept creating forward momentum with his gain-line breaking ball-carrying. He was awesome, and if the English are to go on and take the Grand Slam, he will be the primary reason.
It wasn't as if Jamie Heaslip and CJ Stander offered him a free ride to pick and go, but such is his brute strength and leg drive from a standing start that short of committing two to the tackle, he is nigh-on impossible to stop at source. In a match ultimately determined by hard yards, he was the difference.
Brown puts focus on foul play
In a more serious vein, Mike Brown's second-half kick as close as it gets to Connor Murray's eye deserved at least a citing.
The primary duty of care on a rugby field has always been in relation to boot to head. The player on his feet is responsible for where he plants his boot, especially in or around a ruck, where so many players are on the ground.
While Brown is fast becoming a hate figure in the Chris Ashton mould, I have no doubt that the kick that left Murray's face requiring stitches was not malicious. However, it was reckless and dangerous and I'm amazed he wasn't cited.
On the issue of foul play, I bumped into former Test referee Alan Lewis recently and asked him what he thought of the two high-profile incidents in the French game: Yoann Maestri on Jonathan Sexton and Guilhem Guirado on Dave Kearney.
He was incensed at the lack of a red card in both instances and the negative message it sends out regarding player welfare.
I am not looking through green-tinted glasses here, but certainly the Ireland team has been on the receiving end of dangerous foul play - and World Rugby should be less than proud of their response.
Player protection must be more than just a phrase.
You can be sure that if Lewis had been in charge in Paris, the red card would have been brandished and the questions asked afterwards.
The Brown incident was much more difficult to identify in the moment, but that is all the more reason for taking it further now.
What happens in international rugby has a ripple effect all the way down, and at a time when we are struggling to convince concerned parents of young children that rugby is safe, nothing must be left to chance.
The days of what went on the pitch stayed on the pitch and was washed away over a rake of pints are long gone.
Dillane ready for first start
From an Irish perspective all three new caps were comfortable at this level, and there were encouraging performances from Conor Murray, Robbie Henshaw and Keith Earls.
Donnacha Ryan also appeared much closer to match fitness at this level and his performance should not be lost in all the understandable clamour over Dillane's cameo.
But whether it is Ryan or Devin Toner to make way, Dillane looks set for a full debut against Italy.
Swing Low leaves me cold
And as an aside I loved the Connacht lock's comment when awaiting his second-half call from the bench that Swing Low really got rid o"f the nerves". I too loathe that ditty - it makes The Fields of Athenry sound like La Marseillaise in terms of fan-stirring passion.
One eye on South Africa
As for Schmidt and where we go from here, I would like to think we will see a more enlightened approach to selection. Winning the last two games, both at home, and measured experimentation are not mutually exclusive.
Of course we want to finish strongly, but of much more relevance now should be the end-of-season tour to South Africa and a genuine tilt at the Springboks on their own patch.