Calibre of bench cavalry keeping Ireland ahead of game
Unprecedented squad depth means this team never drops standard, writes Jim Glennon
Ten victories in a row and the prospect of a Grand Slam showdown in Murrayfield if the Welsh can be overcome in Cardiff next Saturday - that's Ireland's enviable position after three rounds of Six Nations.
And, as befits their status as the officially-ranked third best team in the world, the nature of their play, their continued progress as a group and the quiet and composed efficiency with which they go about their business have all been subjected to microscopic dissection. If the spotlight is the prize for success in modern sport, it is also its price.
For me, the most appropriate word to describe the performances of Joe Schmidt's Ireland is 'accurate' - be it at the breakdown, the implementation of their kicking strategy, or their set-piece and maul, it is the levels of consistent accuracy which Ireland achieve in their basic tasks that puts them into winning positions.
Historically, the stumbling block for most teams, at whatever level of rugby, has been maintaining momentum and patterns and, hopefully, dominance, on the introduction of substitutes, and Ireland have struggled with this challenge more than most - remember Declan Kidney?
The progress under Schmidt to interchangeability, particularly this season, has indeed been striking. The capacity of our replacements to enter the fray and immediately perform their roles - often tasks with which they could be understood to be unfamiliar - with little or no reduction in accuracy levels has become something of a calling card for the current squad.
Cast your mind back to November, and the worrying news of Chris Henry's health scare on the morning of the South African game, necessitating Rhys Ruddock's late call-up. Similarly, in Rome, the unfortunate injury sustained by Sean O'Brien in the warm-up and the 11th-hour call-up for Tommy O'Donnell, with his place on the bench taken by Robbie Diack. In each instance, the change was effected seamlessly.
In a remarkable reversal of our traditional position, the quality of our bench is now crucial to Ireland's continued success. Admittedly, the coach has yet to 'empty' it in its entirety this year, but, nonetheless, the impact of those introduced has been most encouraging.
Last week, we saw O'Donnell introduced for O'Brien after 25 minutes and, in combination with the other forward replacements - Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Martin Moore and Iain Henderson - we had a group of forwards better-placed, probably more than any other group in the history of Irish rugby, to make a positive impact and, in some instances, add to the capabilities of the forward unit.
If Healy, Cronin and Henderson showed themselves again to be three of the most explosive forwards we've produced, the starting performance of Jordi Murphy was even more encouraging. Stepping into the shoes of the near-irreplaceable Jamie Heaslip is indeed a mammoth task. But Murphy, as has become the norm, did so almost imperceptibly, going about his business in the same understated manner that has marked him out as an international-in-waiting since his breakthrough into the Leinster squad.
The contribution and importance to Schmidt's game-plan of half-backs Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton can't be understated, and their continued physical well-being, along with that of Paul O'Connell, is absolutely vital to our chances of success for the remainder of the championship and into the World Cup.
The timing and management of substitutions and replacements in these positions will have a huge influence on our performances over the year - the coach is acutely aware that replacements need game-time too.
Scrum-half Eoin Reddan was an unused replacement last week, having come on to the bench in place of Isaac Boss. Ian Madigan was the reserve out-half for each game, while Felix Jones has seen action in two of the three outings, each time in place of centre Jared Payne.
Madigan's introduction in place of Sexton against England was cited by some as the reason for Ireland losing their way somewhat and reverting to type in the closing stages, seemingly content to absorb pressure from the visitors.
While he may have been guilty of a couple of unforced errors with the boot last week, the Leinster man has nonetheless proven himself capable of closing out games for Ireland in the past.
Despite that, Schmidt must harbour concerns around Leinster coach Matt O'Connor's weekly preference for Jimmy Gopperth at outhalf, and Madigan will hardly get more time at No 10 next season with Sexton's return to the Leinster fold.
The capacity to assemble a bench of sufficient quality to positively impact on, or even maintain, performance levels on the field has posed a perennial problem for Irish teams since tactical substitutions were introduced to the game in 1996.
That situation has now been consigned to history - individual roles are currently prescribed with such clarity that players appear entirely comfortable stepping in and out as required, while the onfield leaders continue to drive standards onwards, as stipulated by the boss.
Yes, at times the style of play in the Six Nations has been far from entertaining, let alone exciting, but we in Ireland are witnessing our coach and extended squad implementing a plan and achieving results through unprecedented levels of accuracy and efficiency; if that remains the situation, then I think we might just manage to live with it.
Sunday Indo Sport