Wednesday 21 March 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: The Irish rugby team is still consistently inconsistent

‘Only one player seriously enhanced his Lions prospects. Step forward CJ Stander, one of the big success stories of the Six Nations.’ Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
‘Only one player seriously enhanced his Lions prospects. Step forward CJ Stander, one of the big success stories of the Six Nations.’ Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

What rugby is to New Zealand and cricket is to India, losing the run of ourselves is to Ireland, a great national sport pursued with pride and passion. Hence the exceptionally emotional response to the Six Nations finale at the Aviva.

Yet, now that the dust has settled, it's clear that stirring though it is to deny England a world record, Ireland's big finish came at the end of a pretty underwhelming Six Nations campaign.

You have to look at the 2017 Six Nations, like any major tournament, in the context of what was expected beforehand. If you'd told the fans that we'd finish second, they'd probably have been moderately pleased though disappointed that we hadn't edged out England given that we had them at the Aviva this year. However anyone who predicted that Ireland would win just three games out of five and lose to both Scotland and Wales would have been dismissed as a doom-monger.

Three wins may have been a slight advance on last year's two wins and a draw but it scarcely chimes with the claims made after the winter internationals that Ireland had moved up a level and were now genuine World Cup contenders. The win over England may prompt a restatement of these claims but the game felt a bit like an old-style Irish ambush of superior opposition on home territory. Similar victories over England in 1993, 2001 and 2011 sprang to mind.

That 2011 victory was supposed to herald an Irish renaissance, instead we won just three of our next ten Six Nations matches. In the same year a win over reigning world champions Australia was followed three weeks later by a World Cup quarter-final trouncing at the hands of Wales. The 18 unbeaten matches England reeled off is something Ireland can only imagine achieving. A lack of consistency is the eternal bugbear. The jury is still out on the meaning of last week's victory.

The optimist will say that the win over England 'shows what Ireland are capable of.' But why should it be any more reflective of the team's merit than the defeats by Scotland and Wales? When Ireland followed up the Murrayfield loss by annihilating Italy, there seemed to be a desire to consign the Scottish game to the 'just one of those things' file. Yet the weaknesses exposed in Edinburgh were once more laid bare in Cardiff.

Greeting the Welsh defeat as an opportunity to get out the 'Schmidt must go' banners was a ridiculous reaction. The manager and his team deserve to be judged on what is, on balance, an impressive body of work. But it's just as ridiculous to insist that Ireland's true worth is only reflected in the games where the team plays well. Pollyanna herself would find such an approach somewhat lacking in rigour.

The truth about the Six Nations was that the expectations raised by the winter internationals were never met. Even in the England game the spirit of adventure evident in the wins over the All Blacks and Australia was conspicuous by its absence. Under pressure Ireland reverted to the basic and cautious game which has brought the team so much success under Schmidt. Few teams play such a limited game with such remorseless efficiency. But it was plain porter compared to the sparkling stuff served up in Chicago.

Between the end of last year's Six Nations and the beginning of this year's there seemed to be a big shift in the balance of power. When England were whitewashing the Australians and Ireland were beating the All Blacks, it seemed that both countries looked set to move well clear of their rivals in this part of the world. Yet this year's Championship suggested that there is not an awful lot between the five teams who have the good fortune not to be Italy.

England might be the best team in the Six Nations but, despite what Eddie Jones thinks, there is no great chasm between them and their pursuers. The demolition of Scotland now looks like an outlier. Their performance against Ireland was strikingly similar to the ones they gave against Wales and France. In the first two games they managed to squeeze through, in the Aviva they didn't. But there were few suggestions of a side standing head and shoulders above the opposition.

Before the Aviva it was possible to regard England's underwhelming displays against France and Wales as proof of their ability to always do just enough. After the defeat it seemed clear that those close shaves showed chinks in the armour which Ireland capitalised upon to the full. Ronan O'Gara had previously made the perceptive point that plenty of the English team had been revealed as less than world-beating in the Champions Cup. It is unlikely that the All Blacks will be toppled from their perch by a side starting the likes of Mike Brown, George Ford, James Haskell and Joe Marler.

Enough begrudgery. England remain the best side in this part of the world and, for all the fuss made about Ireland's halfback setbacks, the champions had to go through the tournament with one genuine world-class forward, George Kruis, ruled out through injury and another, Billy Vunipola, only a shadow of himself when he eventually did appear. In Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje, they had the players of the tournament and should, with Ireland, provide the bulk of the Lions Test team.

But if England are the best, who are the second best? The table says Ireland, on points difference, yet we were walloped by Wales who ended up fifth. The Scots will be the popular choice as weakest apart from Italy and they will probably have fewer men in the Lions party than Ireland have on the Test team. That's because of the enormous gulf in class apparent when England opened up at Twickenham. Yet the Scots outclassed Wales and deserved their win over Ireland.

The team who actually finished second last, Wales, seemed the most hard done by. They were brilliant for long stretches against England in what was the best game of the Championship and it was hard to escape the impression that they were done out of it in France. France, to my mind, looked weaker than the four home nations yet in their opening match gave England the toughest game they've had in Twickenham under Jones. The truth is that any of the teams between second and fifth could win or lose to any of the others right now. Whether this indicates a tournament in rude good health or a general mediocrity is something we'll have to let the All Blacks sort out for us.

Ireland are not as good as they looked in Chicago nor as bad as they looked in Cardiff. The hit-and-miss nature of the campaign is shown by the fact that only one player seriously enhanced his Lions prospects. Step forward CJ Stander, one of the big success stories of the Six Nations. Before kick-off he had an outside chance of making the Lions touring party, he's now a cert to go and probably to start at number six. With Maro Itoje probably destined for the second-row, the flanker slots are perhaps currently in the possession of Stander and Sam Warburton, the likely captain.

Tadhg Furlong was in pole position before the Six Nations began and confirmed that his winter form was no fluke with a series of storming performances which make him an automatic Test choice. He may well be part of an all-Irish front-row with Jack McGrath the outstanding loosehead and Rory Best benefiting from Dylan Hartley's unimpressive Six Nations campaign, though both hookers will have to watch out for Wales' Ken Owens who has come on in leaps and bounds.

Conor Murray didn't actually get the chance to do much, shepherding Paddy Jackson through the first two games, injured in the fourth and out for the fifth, but he is a long way ahead of Rhys Webb in the scrumhalf pecking order. Johnny Sexton is head and shoulders above any other available outhalf, an injury to him would be as costly for the Lions as it is for Ireland which is saying something.

Nobody is as good in the Jamie Roberts-style wrecking ball role as Robbie Henshaw but it's likely Warren Gatland will opt for the English centre pairing of Farrell and Jonathan Joseph. At first anyway.

Seán O'Brien didn't have a good Championship by his own standards. Even in the England game three handling errors knocked the gloss off a workmanlike performance. He will be more anxious about selection than he might have once expected but should still get out there and may prosper once he does. Peter O'Mahony should make it too while Cian Healy, Simon Zebo and Jamie Heaslip are right on the cusp. Both Iain Henderson and Garry Ringrose deserve a shot but are unlikely to get one.

Players like Henderson and Ringrose and Devin Toner and Rob Kearney probably needed a rising tide from Ireland to lift their boats to New Zealand. But it wasn't that kind of season. Yet Ireland could end up with half a dozen Test starters, something which shows the extent to which the team underachieved over the past couple of months. With that firepower we shouldn't really be getting beaten by Scotland and clobbered by Wales.

In the end, the victory over England was as much a last-ditch salvage job as a glorious climax. If you'd offered Joe Schmidt three wins out of five at the start of the season, your hand would have been pretty safe.

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