Tuesday 19 February 2019

Bring on the Six Nations

Paul O’Connell will be looking forward to leading Ireland in the Six Nations after last Sunday’s great display
Paul O’Connell will be looking forward to leading Ireland in the Six Nations after last Sunday’s great display

Denis Leamy

I would imagine the Irish lads can't wait for the Six Nations to come around.

Sometimes after a gut-wrenching, last-gasp defeat, you just want to get away from it all for a while, but the quality of that Irish performance last Sunday was so high that everyone probably wants to get back out on the park.

That won't happen for a few months; players will need to quickly adjust to the demands of their clubs, with the Heineken Cup coming back next week, but Ireland can look forward with a lot of confidence after that display.

I think supporters will also look forward with hope, and no doubt they would love if Ireland were playing again this week.

Aside from anything else, that was some entertainment on Sunday, especially the first half when Ireland tore into the All Blacks.

I don't think I have ever seen an Irish team be so aggressive and clinical at the breakdown.

They executed seven or eight turnovers against the All Blacks and it was something that Richie McCaw, who is so effective at the breakdown, was limited to next to nothing -- I can't remember him winning a penalty or getting a turnover. There are very sides in world rugby who have managed to achieve that.

It is hard, then, when you consider all that to accept that Ireland lost the match, but only the All Blacks could come and win it the way they did.

It is easy to be wise in hindsight but I just felt there were a couple of occasions when there was the chance to put a few more points between the sides with a drop goal and they weren't taken.


One came just before half-time and there was some great pressure. Ireland were about 10 metres out but not going anywhere and I hoping they would drop back and try extend the lead to 25-7, but a decision was made to run it and the chances was lost.

There was another occasion in the second half when Ireland managed to get out of their own half and press forward, but Johnny Sexton opted for a high-percentage cross-kick to Tommy Bowe and it didn't work.

But that shouldn't take from an outstanding Irish performance. Ireland had really gone at New Zealand and had run in three superb tries, so you could hardly fault them for going for the kill.

There is no doubt they were really hurt about the Australia match and that was a great response -- it was just a pity that it didn't get the win it deserved.

But I think Joe Schmidt can now look back at the autumn games and see a lot of hope, and he will be already planning for the Six Nations and beyond.

Undoubtedly, players will be anxious in one case to hold on to their positions if they were involved, while many others will be using the Heineken Cup and Rabo matches over the next couple of months to stake their claim.

It was unusual to see an Irish matchday squad with just three Munster players in it -- there were 16 from Leinster -- but, as I have said before, that will change as Schmidt becomes more familiar with the players from other provinces.

Simon Zebo and Keith Earls -- both Lions -- were ruled out through injury, while several other Munster players will be looking to the Six Nations and feel they can make it. Stephen Archer got game time and James Coughlan was also involved, while I would expect Dave Kilcoyne will be anxious to make a point over the coming weeks.

Rory Best -- what a loss he was on Sunday, he started the game like a man possessed -- is out until the end of January, and I think Damien Varley could be in with a shout. He is playing superb rugby at the moment and has the physical attributes. If he can manage to nail down a starting spot in Munster, he could force his way into the Irish squad.

I wouldn't rule out Donncha O'Callaghan either. Donnacha Ryan has to come back as well but Donncha O'Callaghan -- I know he is 34 -- has looked very hungry and has been very effective for Munster this season.

He has been half forgotten about, with Mike McCarthy -- who is 32 -- and others coming along, but I think Donncha can still do a job and he won't be far off it when Schmidt is drawing up his plans for the Six Nations.

Of course, there is an abundance of young talent coming through as well and it will be interesting over the Heineken Cup weekends in December and January, and perhaps some of the derby Rabo matches at Christmas, to see who can put their hands up.

Irish Independent

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