Weekend takeaways: Loss a new low in Schmidt era, Mayo need change of attitude
Eamon Sweeney reflects on the main talking points from the sporting weekend.
Loss a new low in Schmidt era
1. Ireland's loss to Scotland was the most disappointing reverse of the Joe Schmidt era. The 2015 World Cup quarter-final defeat by Argentina may have been more emotionally shattering but was excusable given the depleted nature of the team. Last year's Six Nations losses to France and England could be explained as the result of a World Cup hangover.
No such consolations are available after the Murrayfield meltdown. Ireland went into the game on a high and with Johnny Sexton the only significant injury absentee.
Scotland were an improving team but still looked like the fifth best of the six nations at kick-off time. Eighty-odd minutes later Irish Grand Slam hopes were dead. There will be no Triple Crown either and a Six Nations title looks unlikely. The two wins and a draw out of five dismissed as a lapse into mid-table mediocrity last term don't look a bad target now.
The shape of the game, a terrible start followed by a brave rally, succeeded by a late fade-out, has seen it compared to the Argentinian loss. Yet this shattering defeat has more in common with our disastrous performances at the 2007 World Cup.
Back then a team apparently set to make the jump into world class self-destructed, revealing previously unsuspected but utterly fatal flaws.
The immediate challenge for Schmidt is to prevent a similar slump. For the first time his team have fallen significantly and inexplicably short of his high standards. It's not time to hit the panic button just yet. But it might be a good idea to check that it's in working order.
Signs ominous for chasers
2. It might not be very PC to admit it but one thing which can lessen the sting of defeat for an Irish sports fan is an English loss on the same day. For long periods on Saturday it looked as though we were going to get just that as France dominated proceedings at Twickenham.
In the end England scraped home thanks to big performances off the bench but in looking uncertain at half-back, unconvincing in the front row and generally unlike the team which swept all before them in 2016 they did give some hope to their Six Nations rivals.
There’s only one problem with the ‘England aren’t invincible’ reading of Saturday’s game. And that’s the fact that they didn’t actually lose. France played very well, England played very badly yet Eddie Jones and his team still made it 15 wins out of 15 under their new manager. There's something a bit ominous about that.
Mayo attitude must change
3. Kerry ran up a big score in Donegal, Tyrone cruised past Roscommon, Dublin continued their long unbeaten National League run and welcomed back Jack McCaffrey.
The odd men out among football’s big guns were Mayo whose Division One campaign opened with a disappointing home defeat by Monaghan.
Mayo may be tempted to discount this reverse as not mattering much because it’s ‘only the league’. Yet the defining quality of the Dublin team they seek to dethrone is their ability to win close games, twice there’s been just a point between them and the Westerners in the All-Ireland final.
They’ve honed this ability by eking out narrow victories in the type of league game Mayo lost on Saturday night.
The recent O’Byrne Cup was an example of how much the Dubs hate to lose any game. Mayo are a bit easier on themselves. That ‘only the league’ mentality could cost them dear when they’re playing for higher stakes.
Failure is all too familiar
4. The most striking thing about Chelsea’s victory over Arsenal was not Eden Hazard’s magnificent goal but the utter predictability of the Gunners’s collapse.
Almost everyone expected them to wilt under the pressure and wilt they did. Utter failure in big matches like this has become almost as synonymous with Arsene Wenger’s reign as the flowing attacking football his side unleashes against lesser opposition. Mesut Ozil, irresistible against his inferiors and invisible against his equals, seems the emblematic Arsenal player of this era.
Wenger may once more steer his side into the top four, cueing up one more lucrative, if largely ineffectual, Champions League campaign. But their main rivals are all in the process of rebuilding. Arsenal still seem happy with their status as the most appealing and consistent of also-rans.
For all the aesthetic pleasure they offer, Wenger’s side sometimes present the most dispiriting spectacle in English football. There’s no no-show like an Arsenal no-show.
Jazz shock a sign of times
5. Punchestown witnessed one of the shocks of the National Hunt season yesterday as top Cheltenham fancy and 4/9 favourite Cilaos Emery was beaten in the INH Stallion Owners European Breeders Fund Novice Hurdle by 7/1 shot Mick Jazz.
It was just the latest round in the epic battle between Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott for the Irish Trainers Championship. Could it be that yesterday’s race; where Cilaos Emery, trained by Mullins and ridden by Ruby Walsh, led and looked like a winner before being overtaken on the run-in by the winner, trained by Elliott and ridden by teenage wunderkind Jack Kennedy, represents the future of Irish jump racing?