Five things we learned from Ireland's victorious Autumn Series
Even appendicitis couldn't distract Ireland coach Joe Schmidt as his team enjoyed a clean sweep in November. Here are five things we learned from the three victories.
Never before has an Ireland team looked so healthy in terms of options. Prior to the series, the retirement of Brian O'Driscoll and fitness concerns over Mike Ross posed serious questions in the public domain.
Added to this injuries to Six Nations heroes Cian Healy, Sean O'Brien, Dave Kearney, Andrew Trimble and Iain Henderson, then there were enough legitimate grounds to suggest that one scalp would be as much as the hosts could muster in November.
Head coach Joe Schmidt has repeated from day one that it is a squad of players that make the system work and so it proved in the three victories. Jared Payne looked defensively solid at 13 against the Springboks with limited go-forward ball, while Robbie Henshaw added to his reputation with a stellar performance against Australia.
Ross held down the scrum despite running on near empty with Marty Moore still side-lined, while the likes of Ian Madigan, Rhys Ruddock, Jack McGrath and Simon Zebo can look back with pride on the clean sweep as they look to force their way into first-team reckoning.
Varied game plans
All three games highlighted the fact that Schmidt's side are comfortable with whatever tactical plan is required to secure victory.
The Springboks fixture was every bit as physical and energy-sapping as predicted and while the backline had little chance to showcase their wares with ball in hand, they were efficient when the chances arose. Tommy Bowe's try was straight off the training ground and the defensive effort will have pleased forward's coach Simon Easterby no end.
Expected to run up a score on Georgia, the second-string took their time to feel their way into the game but finished comfortable winners.
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The final victory bore witness to Barbarians-style rugby, before things got a little too loose and the visitors clawed their way back into the match. Again the defensive efforts were exemplary towards the end, with no repeat of the nightmare finish against the All Blacks still very much in the memory bank.
More so perhaps than any other coach in world rugby, Schmidt is able to cut his cloth to suit the measure.
Serious World Cup contenders
Former England international Brian Moore suggested today that Ireland is the only team with realistic World Cup ambitions from the northern hemisphere, though Stuart Lancaster and Warren Gatland will hope that improvement in the Six Nations will renew their respective ambitions.
The agonising defeat to the All Blacks last November was a case of close but no cigar, though it did prove that for 80 minutes Ireland can give as good as they can get from the world's best. We have run them close before, but never for an entire match.
Dejection after last year's defeat to the All Blacks
The final one per cent of self-belief that is required against such illustrious opponents can only be gained from beating top class opposition – such as England pre-World Cup 2003 form – and the Autumn Series will add to the layers of confidence for the entire squad.
Topping the World Cup pool would mean Ireland would most likely avoid the All Blacks in the last eight, with Argentina more likely the opponents. That would be uncharted territory, but Irish fans have good reason to dream based on what we have seen in 2014.
It is almost taken for granted that our professional players keep their respective eyes on the bigger picture without getting carried away with victories, but the calm manner and critical analysis is something that has been fed from the top down.
Schmidt spoke of being merely "an observer who put subs on" after the Wallabies victory before he was whisked away to St Vincent's hospital to have his appendix removed. Not even severe stomach pains could take him away from the Aviva with a task at hand.
“There’s a lot to improve on again," Jamie Heaslip said afterwards, before adding that Schmidt would have video-nasties when they meet up at Christmas camp. Paul O'Connell too said he felt the win wouldn't alter their standing with the World Cup on the horizon.
Those tuning in to only the interviews without knowing the result could be forgiven for thinking that Ireland had lost the match to Michael Cheika's side such were the under-stated soundbites.
The 2009 Grand Slam consigned moral victories to the past for Irish rugby and the current management and players have raised standards and expectations to a whole new level.
Half-backs in the groove
Even the All Blacks can't boast the best half-back partnership in the game, though injuries have played their part. Dan Carter for example looked rusty on his comeback trail this month.
In Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton, we currently boast the most astute nine and ten in the world. Supremely talented and superb tacklers, the one thing that sets them above the rest is their decision-making.
The scrum-half's deft chip for Tommy Bowe was the key score against the Springboks and capped an all-round commanding performance. His partner did something similar for Simon Zebo at the weekend.
Most sides have a general, either a nine or ten that pulls the strings and controls the game. Joe Schmidt is blessed to have two, while waiting in the wings Eoin Reddan and Ian Madigan are applying real pressure to the pair.