Monday 20 November 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: Lessons we've learned the hard way

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The Ireland team stand before the fans in Rome, but we learned little about their form against a bedraggled Italian outfit. Photo: Ramsey Cardy
The Ireland team stand before the fans in Rome, but we learned little about their form against a bedraggled Italian outfit. Photo: Ramsey Cardy

Eamonn Sweeney

Time to catch a breath and steady the nerves. If the Six Nations keeps on like this it will be the most exciting tournament in years. We have had close finishes, surprises and unexpected stars as the pre-championship conventional wisdom has been turned on its head.

The confident declarations that both England and Ireland had moved up a level and put daylight between themselves and their rivals seem somewhat nonsensical after an opening fortnight which saw four of the six games decided by half a dozen points or less. What we've actually witnessed is a considerable tightening up where there doesn't seem to be an awful lot between the top five teams.

England haven't been as good as expected, Ireland have, so far, been a lot worse, Scotland have been much better than anyone expected, there's still a considerable kick left in Wales and there have even been hints of a French revival, though it remains to be seen whether this is illusory. An awful lot remains to be seen.

There's been a somewhat odd response to the Irish drubbing of a woefully weak Italian team. People seem to be unduly hasty in declaring everything to be back on track. It's as though the Rome walkover truly reflects the worth of the team and the defeat in Edinburgh can be written off as a fluke. I've even seen suggestions that the real tests start now for Ireland. The truth is that Scotland have already provided Ireland with a real test and we failed it. Taking the 'it's all about the bus, 'bout the bus, no trouble' line on Murrayfield belongs to the realm of cheerleading rather than that of analysis.

The desire to declare everything magically tickety-boo again is understandable in the context of the wild optimism engendered by the winter victories over the All Blacks and Australia. Yet there remain big question marks over the form of the team. As things stand, Scotland are entitled to consider themselves a better team than Ireland.

There's a distinct possibility that Ireland may bounce back and win our remaining three games. It's also possible we could lose them. We won't know what Rome meant till we've played France, Wales and England.

One thing we have learned is that Rob Kearney's days at full-back are, or should be, numbered. Few sporting sights are more dispiriting than that of the Irish number 15 running the ball back with all the elan and brio of a commuter trotting down the platform towards the same train he's been catching for the last decade. There was a rather marvellous moment during the Scotland game when, after Kearney had for once managed to beat a defender, there seemed to be, though I could be wrong, a note of amazement in Paul O'Connell's voice. We've come to expect very little from the Leinster man.

Should he miss a couple of games through injury it might be a blessing in disguise for Kearney. Call it Aidan Walsh Syndrome, where a player gives his best performances when he's not actually playing, contributing more as an excuse than an asset.

Jettisoning Kearney would open the way for Simon Zebo to move to fullback, where he's been outstanding for Munster in Europe. I've always felt Joe Schmidt has some unstated reservation about Zebo in the same way that Eddie O'Sullivan never quite seemed to warm to Geordan Murphy to the extent that everyone else did. Yet Zebo has looked razor-sharp in the first two games, with the only problem being that of bringing him more fully into the game. The thought of what Zebo might do in the open field when the ball is kicked down his throat is mouth-watering.

So is the re-emergence of Craig Gilroy, though in this case Schmidt's evident caution makes more sense. When a player scores a hat-trick against Italy, it's probably the 'against Italy' rather than the 'hat-trick' which is the most important thing about it. Similarly, while Garry Ringrose's try in the Olympic Stadium underlined the special nature of his talent, his somewhat raw performance against Scotland has to be kept in mind. I think it's pretty obvious a great career lies in store for Ringrose but right now we don't know how far along the road to greatness he is.

It's fair to say that Paddy Jackson has risen to the challenge of replacing Johnny Sexton. It's also fair to say that Ireland would be a better team with Sexton at out-half, simply because every team in the world with the exception of the All Blacks would be better with Sexton at out-half. Conor Murray has been pretty underwhelming so far, but the 'form is temporary, class is permanent' theory means you'd have less worries about him in the big games to come than about anyone else on the team. He really is irreplaceable.

Ireland's front row has been rock-solid so far, though a top-form Jack McGrath should have more to offer than even a rejuvenated Cian Healy - and if Rory Best's old throwing woes have not fully returned they have sent a postcard suggesting they might be on their way soon.

Iain Henderson's demotion after a listless performance against Scotland was deserved. All the same, Henderson at his best offers more energy, explosiveness and dynamism than either Devin Toner or Donnacha Ryan, and these are the qualities which Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes of England possess in abundance.

If Ulster's struggles have diminished Henderson Ireland will, in time, feel the loss of the closest thing we have to a new Paul O'Connell figure.

The rush to declare that Jamie Heaslip had answered every question raised by his off-colour showing in Edinburgh said a lot about the affection with which the number eight is held by a significant section of the media. Really, the jury should still be out - but Heaslip deserves the benefit of the doubt for the way in which he confounded everyone by arresting an apparent downward trajectory over the past couple of years. Anyway, he'll have the biggest test of anyone next Saturday when he takes on the magnificent Louis Picamoles, the championship's outstanding performer so far.

Picamoles has made more yards than anyone else, even out-distancing the four full-backs who come next to him on the list and who have made most of their yards running the ball back unopposed. Picamoles' yards, on the other hand, have been hard ones. He's also third for the number of defenders beaten.

Top of that particular list is CJ Stander who, like Picamoles, has done a pretty good impersonation of an irresistible force so far. Is he really as good as he looks? We'll find out from here on in. Sean O'Brien has been good, but not quite the Sean O'Brien of old. This is probably because he's playing his way back to top form rather than because of any decline. But we don't know that for sure. It's one more mystery to be solved.

The mystery on which the entire plot may hinge is the true identity of England. Deep into the second half against Wales, as Mike Brown and Jonathan Joseph skied kicks into touch on the full and the home crowd neared delirium, there looked to be no way back for the visitors. Yet they persevered and there was something remarkably clinical about the manner in which they created and took the winning try. The contrast with Ireland's finish against Scotland was stark. Under Eddie Jones our old enemy give the impression of not believing they can be beaten.

You suspect Dylan Hartley only remains in the team because England like the idea of having the Lions captain. But they are much better with the splendid Jamie George in the team, and with James Haskell and Ben Te'o there too. It's notable too that Owen Farrell, rather than George Ford, seems to emerge as leader behind the scrum when they're under the cosh.

Chances are the team which takes the field in Dublin will be closer to the optimum line-up than the one which began the championship. And in Elliot Daly they have the find of the season so far.

Yet that game is no longer the be-all and end-all for Ireland. The Scottish defeat means the match in Cardiff on March 10 is a must-win. Because if we lose that and go into the England match with two defeats and no hope of the title, then the season will have already been a failure. Beating England and denying them the Grand Slam will be a mighty consolation prize, but a consolation prize is what it will be.

So a repeat of the Welsh ambush from 2015 would count as a major disaster. An Irish win, you suspect, would give us the momentum for another victory eight days later. D-Day has, for now, been moved back by eight days.

One more thing. Can we stop saying that 'Conor O'Shea has Italy moving in the right direction'. There is not a shred of evidence for this. Never in the history of the championship have Italy looked as spiritless and bedraggled as they have in their first two games this year. The fact that they're coached by one of our own doesn't change that.

Now let the games continue.

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