Troubling lack of consistency remains the biggest negative ahead of difficult Six Nations campaign
But Ireland have erased some of the question marks, says Jim Glennon
The period of reflection last week amongst the broader sporting public, nationally and indeed internationally, raised as many questions as had seemingly been answered on Sunday.
Before the game, Ireland were written off. Their hunger and passion was in question. But the resounding response was such that they completely replenished our reserves of pride, reserves depleted over a sustained period, culminating in that limp performance against Australia the previous week.
In advance of the November series, the consensus was that two wins, plus a performance against New Zealand, would be a good return yet despite falling short of that objective, most would now ironically argue that it wasn't a failure. However, the object of the exercise is to win and, by that standard, the series has in reality been a failure.
The important questions now are just where do we stand, and which of the three performances most closely represents the real Ireland? No disrespect to the Samoans, but it's the other two outings – encompassing as they did the extremes of performance – that bear most relevance. The quality of the opposition makes for a more reliable yardstick.
Expectations for the Six Nations have been raised a level. The IRFU reported increased interest in tickets last week, particularly for the Welsh game. But why so? Have we chosen to ignore our European rivals' autumnal activities? That in recent weeks England, having beaten Australia, also conceded a not-quite-so-late victory to New Zealand, or that only a last-minute rush of blood to Gallic heads deprived the French of the world champions' scalp ? And that, come springtime, we must travel to London and Paris?
'Sustainability' has been something of a buzzword in recent years and is the key to any discussion of our immediate prospects. Can we sustain the performance levels of last week through the spring?
A new level of emotional intensity among the players was plain for all to see last Sunday in the manner in which they dominated their opponents in every facet in the opening half. Rob Kearney's emotion during Amhrán na bhFiann signalled something special was imminent and while the intensity lifted the overall performance to levels previously unseen, it will be impossible to repeat and maintain over the eight weeks of the Six Nations. Crucially, though, it shouldn't be necessary to do so; the challenges presented in Paris by France or in Twickenham by England are of an entirely different nature to those offered by, say, Italy in Dublin.
Enter Joe Schmidt. The new coach is nothing if not a realist, excelling in the skills of squad-management and man-management, and he now has a handle on the resources at his disposal.
Only Eddie O'Sullivan of his recent predecessors achieved a sustained level of consistent performance; otherwise the Irish rugby team's most consistent attribute has been its inconsistency. Consistency of performance will be the yardstick by which Schmidt will be judged and, while it is impossible to expect a sustained repetition of New Zealand levels through the championship, a single repetition of the relative inertia of the Australia game will be unacceptable. The coaching staff will be targeting performance levels somewhere between the two, hopefully peaking and tapering off when appropriate.
Answers have been provided too to questions hanging over some players. We should welcome the continued, though yet incomplete, emergence of Jack McGrath, the arrival of Devin Toner as a fully-fledged international second-row, and Gordon D'Arcy's continued confounding of his critics.
Equally, however, some areas of concern remain, with back-up at tighthead prop and outside centre top of this list. Ahead of the Australian game our scrum was considered to be a potential weapon – this was turned on its head when Mike Ross took a pasting and his substitute didn't fare any better. While Ross redeemed himself somewhat against New
Zealand, the position remains a potential Achilles heel. Not even the most durable of props can be asked to endure the entire Six Nations and it remains unproven that Ross's now most likely deputies, Declan Fitzpatrick and Martin Moore, are ready to step into his shoes, even for a 20-minute relief shift at game's end.
Brian O'Driscoll's impending retirement has come into more urgent focus too, and with it the question of his long-term replacement. The smart betting at this point is on Luke Fitzgerald; injury-ravaged, he has seen little active service and will have competition from Darren Cave, the still-raw Robbie Henshaw, and the not-yet-Irish-qualified Jarred Payne, but he has the experience and ability to step up to the plate.
It's still early days in relation to the new coaching ticket – the real evidence will be provided by the Six Nations. Schmidt, with the outstanding Paul O'Connell, should take credit for the remarkable performance last week, and new forwards coach John Plumtree appears to have immediately strengthened the maul.
However, there's work to be done, and plenty of it, on the scrum and the lineout remains somewhat inconsistent. Defence is a tough one to gauge – untroubled by Samoa, non-existent against Australia, and then unrecognisable for New Zealand; one would have to assume that Les Kiss, the long-standing defence coach, was under no little pressure after the manner of the loss to Australia.
Overall, one can only be optimistic and, at this remove, optimism could equate to three home wins and a pair of good away performances. Is that acceptable?
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