Monday 26 February 2018

Ireland have the emerging talent to kick on from glorious near miss

New Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt
New Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

The general consensus was that victories over Samoa and Australia, followed by an honourable showing against New Zealand, would constitute a satisfactory November series.

Well, we were average to reasonable against the Samoans, shocking against the Wallabies and out of this world (well almost) against the All Blacks.

So where do Joe Schmidt and his squad stand now?

It will only dawn with the passing of time on those involved just how close they came and what they missed out on when failing to seal the deal against New Zealand, when their destiny was in their own hands.

Ireland's record now reads 27 defeats and a draw from the 28 games played against the Kiwis.

Had Aaron Cruden missed with the last kick of the game or had the retake been over-ruled, would the draw have offered some consolation?

I'm with Schmidt and a fair whack of the players in saying no, not in the least.

Of course drawing is better than losing, but when you are three tries and 19 points to the good on your home patch against the reigning world champions – the best team on the planet, probably ever – you have every reason to pinch yourself and think 'this is our day'.

BATTLED

To be fair, not one Irish player did that – collectively, despite running low on reserves in the final segment, they battled to the bitter end.

The solitary draw was achieved in 1973 when Barry McGann came within a whisker of immortality. In '78 we were level at 6-6 going into injury-time when Andy Dalton scored in the corner to steal the win and with it the first leg of a first ever All Blacks Grand Slam.

Would we have felt any better had we drawn rather than lost that one at the death? I can state categorically as a player that day, no.

Johnny Sexton, like the pro he is, will erase 'that' missed kick from his memory and get on with doing what he does best but at some point in time, when he's sitting by the fire with the grandkids, it will return, hopefully not to haunt him, but certainly as a reminder of what might have been.

We all miss kicks, and by God I've had my share, but the trick is to file it away and carry on regardless. The successes far outweigh the failures and Sexton, just like his kicking coach and new-found best friend at Racing Metro Ronan O'Gara, need offer no apologies to Irish rugby in that regard.

That and Jack McGrath's flop off his feet – resulting in the penalty and last-gasp shot at possession for the All Blacks – offered the visitors a glimmer of hope and the rest is history.

Great teams and great players do great things in times of crisis, and Ryan Crotty's try to complete the perfect season for New Zealand was just that – great.

So where to now for Ireland and this new management? Well, despite not getting the ideal return outlined above, it has been a productive autumn. Schmidt and John Plumtree are now in situ, with a better perspective on what is demanded of them, as well as the players.

They know that while Ireland are nowhere near as bad as they appeared against the Australians, it is the New Zealand performance by which they will be judged from now on. The bar has been set. The opposition shirt must not need to be black to elicit that type of intense response.

Schmidt selected 30 players across the three match-day squads, giving all but one (Isaac Boss against New Zealand) a run at some stage.

And to the 30 already capped by Schmidt can be added the following: Martin Moore, Dave Kilcoyne, Damien Varley, Mike Sherry, Richardt Strauss (back in training), Dan Tuohy, Iain Henderson, Robin Copeland, Tommy O'Donnell, James Coughlan, Dominic Ryan, Rhys Ruddock, Stephen Ferris (hopefully), Kieran Marmion, Paul Marshall, Darren Cave, Stuart Olding, Andrew Trimble, Jared Payne, Keith Earls and Niall Morris.

That makes for a pool of over 50, and I can assure you that there is some serious talent, right across the positional spectrum, coming through the underage system.

We are not as poor as we appeared against Australia, but neither are we capable of delivering the intensity we produced against the Kiwis on a consistent basis.

We are somewhere in between, with a whole host of emerging alternatives, and that surely provides genuine grounds for optimism.

We will not be favoured to win the Six Nations on the back of one spirited performance, but we are capable of beating any team on any given day.

The challenge is to produce that type of performance more often.

Irish Independent

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