Monday 23 April 2018

Tony Ward: Ambition pays rich dividend - and the best is yet to come

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

It's wrong in this type of situation that one team should have the clear advantage of knowing what it has to do, but there is no denying the excitement and extra dimension the unfair format brought to 'Super Saturday'.

Ireland's first goal at Murrayfield was simply to win. Given what transpired in Cardiff, victory over the Scots to take us into World Cup mode was absolutely essential.

Back-to-back defeats at the end of a campaign that had promised so much would have been unthinkable. In the end we got there - and how. To post 40 points at Murrayfield, conceding just 10, is remarkable by any standard.

This was probably our most complete and certainly most varied performance of the campaign. The kick-chase was not as prevalent but it was still there; the ambition was clear from early on but this time with three-quarters running from depth with purpose and conviction.

Factor

The critical factor was Ireland's half-backs, who drove a plan of action appropriate to the occasion, displaying both great common sense and tailored ambition.

I suggested earlier in the campaign that their tag as the best half-back combination in the global game might just be a little prematurely bestowed. Well not any more.

Were a Lions Test team being selected today, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton would be the first two names on it.

They have come on leaps and bounds in this tournament. They play the lot; the elements, the opposition, the occasion, but more than anything they play with such measured control.

The manner in which they kept the Scots locked in a vice grip in that second period was percentage rugby at its very best. Simple in its rationale, but clinical in its execution.

22/03/2015
Jamie Heaslip & Rob Kearney with Irish fan Charlie Hassett 3 months from Tipperary after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22/03/2015 Jamie Heaslip & Rob Kearney with Irish fan Charlie Hassett 3 months from Tipperary after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22/03/2015 Jamie Heaslip with Irish fan Charlie Hassett 3 months from Tipperary after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22/03/2015 Jamie Heaslip with Irish fan Aidan Shanagher 4 from Dundrum after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22/03/2015 Paul O' Connell with Irish fans after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22/03/2015 Jamie Heaslip with Irish fans after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22/03/2015 Jamie Heaslip with Irish fan Charlie Hassett 3 months from Tipperary after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22/03/2015 Jamie Heaslip with Irish fans Michael Reehill 4 from Dublin & Aaron Redfern 6 from Limerick after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22 March 2015; Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt is pictured on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22/03/2015 Jamie Heaslip with Irish fans Michael Reehill 4 from Dublin & Aaron Redfern 6 from Limerick after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22/03/2015 Cian Healy & Paul O' Connell with Irish fans after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22 March 2015; Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt signs autographs for supporters on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22 March 2015; The Ireland team bus is cheered by supporters on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22 March 2015; Ireland captain Paul O'Connell leads the team into the arrivals hall on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22/03/2015 Irish fans with the 6 nations trophy after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22 March 2015; Ireland captain Paul O'Connell and Jonathan Sexton share a joke on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22/03/2015 Fans (L to r) Ruth Fitzgerald from Waterford & Ciara Pykett from Swords during the homecoming of 6 Nations Rugby champions Ireland at Dublin Airport. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22 March 2015; Ireland captain Paul O'Connell and Jonathan Sexton share a joke on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22/03/2015 Jamie Heaslip & Cian Healy with Irish fans after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22 March 2015; Ireland's Peter O'Mahony takes a selfie with supporters on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22/03/2015 Paul O' Connell with Irish fans after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22 March 2015; Ireland's Cian Healy and Sean O'Brien sign autographs for supporters on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22/03/2015 Sean O Brien with Irish fan Jane O Rourke 7 from Castleknock after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22 March 2015; Ireland supporters await the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22 March 2015; Ireland captain Paul O'Connell and Jonathan Sexton share a joke on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Paul O'Connell, Tommy Bowe, and Rob Kearney on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Paul O'Connell, Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald are pictured on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Paul O'Connell and Jonathan Sexton share a joke on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Ireland supporters await the team's arrival at Dublin Airport. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt at Dublin Airport. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Cian Healy and Sean O'Brien sign autographs. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Peter O'Mahony takes a selfie with supporters. Photo. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Jonathan Sexton signs autographs for supporters at Dublin Airport. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Ireland supporters await the team's arrival at Dublin Airport. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22 March 2015; The RBS Six Nations Championship trophy is passed around by Ireland supporters at the Ireland rugby squad homecoming. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Jamie Heaslip poses for a photograph with students from Newbridge College, Co. Kildare, at the Ireland rugby squad homecoming.
22 March 2015; Eimear McEnroe, from Ballyjamesduff, Co. Cavan, takes a photo with Jonathan Sexton after the Ireland team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22 March 2015; Ireland captain Paul O'Connell is pictured with supporter Aidan Shanagher, Dundrum, Dublin, upon the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22 March 2015; Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt poses with supporter Ciara McAteer upon the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22 March 2015; Ireland's Jamie Heaslip is pictured on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport with Aaron Redfern and Michael Freehill, Dublin, after wining the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22 March 2015; Ireland's Jonathan Sexton is pictured on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport with Patrick Greville, Clontarf, Dublin, after wining the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

But this prototype team performance was not just about them. From loose head Cian Healy winning a turnover to which he had no right in the opening minute to Rob Kearney in the last line defusing every bomb, the tone was set early, and it never relented.

The lineout was back, so too the discipline marked absent in the opening quarter in Cardiff.

We are not comfortable chasing a game - what side is? - but on Saturday we never had to.

Each player in green delivered but it was reassuring to see both flankers, Sean O'Brien and Peter O'Mahony, leading the way.

These two were awesome with ball in hand, while collectively the defence was almost always in control, with the lone Scottish try scored on the back of a lucky bounce followed by a clear-cut forward pass. I suspect even Les Kiss might go easy on that one.

Schmidt is not a magician but in almost every game he plans, you see a pattern of play appropriate to the day and designed around the opposition. Occasionally it goes belly up, as in Cardiff, but there is always a well-thought-out reason behind what he is trying to do.

At Murrayfield we applied the mix through running from deep (inside our own '22') but with nothing willy nilly about moving it wide.

Occasionally Paul O'Connell, Jamie Heaslip or particularly O'Brien, given his mood, would change the point or angle of attack but almost always with quick presentation for Murray under the control of the forward going into contact.

Another important factor in Ireland's margin of victory was the ever-growing impact off the bench.

If the 20-10 lead at the break was a little flattering the 20 points without reply in the second half was definitely not. If anything the margin might have been even more. We doubled our try-scoring return for the campaign from four to eight but here Schmidt knows better than anyone the need for increased guile allied to a much more incisive cutting edge.

Jared Payne took his try particularly well and alongside Robbie Henshaw put in another ultra-professional shift in midfield. I'm still not sure the combination is right but that each is more than qualified to play at this level is a case well proven.

It was good to see Luke Fitzgerald back at this level, where he is to the manor born. Simon Zebo was harshly treated but Fitzgerald still has that little bit of zest over and above Zebo's slightly more laid-back playing style - and that is not a criticism.

Rationale

I understand the rationale behind selecting an extra specialist full-back on the bench (Felix Jones) in case of emergency but it is an opinion I don't share.

Take any one from Zebo, Dave Kearney, Keith Earls, Craig Gilroy even Fergus McFadden and picking a utility back to wear shirt No 23 makes much more sense.

If Schmidt came second to Warren Gatland a week ago, then for sure he finished ahead of his great mate and another New Zealander in Vern Cotter.

The Scots are at least looking to play it positive but no matter how Cotter might dress it up they were beaten every bit as convincingly as the scoreline suggests.

A great day for Schmidt, a great day for Ireland but more than anything a great day for a most honest and hard working group of lads. And the most encouraging aspect of all? The best is yet to come.

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