Tuesday 16 January 2018

Title encore must be Ireland's target

Brian O'Driscoll and Dave Kearney of Ireland
Brian O'Driscoll and Dave Kearney of Ireland

Eamonn Sweeney

One of the great things about the victory over France in Paris and the clinching of the Six Nations title was that we appreciated and savoured it to the full. When Ireland won the Grand Slam in 2009, the team had been knocking on the door for so long, and the general mood was so bullish, that the players had barely left the pitch before we'd begun predicting a future of more expansive rugby leading to World Cup victory.

This time round, the misery of recent seasons having engendered a more realistic attitude, there was a realisation that this victory was something worth celebrating in itself. The performance in Paris, and the season as a whole, was one of the great modern achievements in Irish sport. The scale of the achievement remains the same no matter what happens next.

But now the excitement has died down we can think about what the future holds. One thing it's unlikely to hold, despite some excitable talk, is a World Cup victory in 2015. A Six Nations title is a fine thing but it's pushing it a bit to suggest it portends anything in a tournament which has seen just one victor from our championship in eight runnings. A first ever semi-final appearance would be a tremendous achievement for Ireland. Home advantage means England are the most likely northern hemisphere challengers to New Zealand and South Africa.

The mindset which, after 2009, seemed to see the Six Nations as merely instrumental to our performance in the next World Cup proved to be nigh on disastrous for the national team, leading to a situation where we performed well in neither tournament. The same mistake is unlikely to be made this time. Joe Schmidt was forthright in targeting the Six Nations this year and will do the same from now on, one suspects.

Suggestions that we needed to move to a more flowing game to challenge the southern hemisphere giants abounded after 2009 and also sent the team on a fool's errand. This year we prospered from getting the basic things right. As did the one home nation which has won the World Cup, the England team of 2003. Clive Woodward's side had no illusions about matching the kind of stuff their rivals were producing in the Super 12 at the time but they did their own thing so efficiently it didn't matter.

That English victory was based on a platform of dominance in the Six Nations with three victories in four years leading in to the tournament. And that's the kind of thing Ireland should be aiming at now. Only once in our history, in 1949 when it was the Five Nations, have we retained the title. Most of the time our rugby fortunes have followed the same kind of boom and bust cycle as our economy.

Taking it to the next level for Ireland doesn't involve winning the World Cup or playing a different style of rugby. Another Six Nations title in 2015 would suffice, perhaps even a Grand Slam. That's a tough enough ask to keep Joe's boys busy for the next 12 months.

Sunday Indo Sport

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