Saturday 19 January 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: Schmidt's Ireland late to table but Six Nations tryfest makes performances worth the wait

Chris Farrell
Chris Farrell
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

How great is this Six Nations? The greatest ever? With just 60 per cent of the tournament gone it's too early to judge but few people would deny that last week's Ireland-Wales and Scotland-England matches were as good as anything the great old championship has produced in this millennium.

One telling statistic is that the first nine matches have produced 49 tries. This is already more than the totals for 2012 (46) and 2013 (a paltry 37). At 5.4 tries per games, the current average is well ahead of last year's 4.11, and even the record high of 5.0 set, almost unbelievably, in 2000, 2001 AND 2002. This year's tryfest can partly be accounted for by the weakness of Italy, but only partly. It would, for example, have been unthinkable not long ago for an Ireland-Wales game to contain eight five-pointers.

If the 2013 championship can lay claim to being the overall nadir for attacking rugby, the Irish side which won the 2015 title may have been the dullest champions. They scored just eight tries that year. You may remember their final game against Scotland being represented as some kind of crazy Barbarians style free-flowing feast of positivity yet it only yielded four tries. This season Ireland have already scored 13 tries with the record of 17 set by the Triple Crown-winning teams in 2004 and 2007 looking eminently beatable at the moment.

This is quite a transformation in the space of three years, yet it mirrors a general change of attitude among the Six Nations. It appears that the disaster of the 2015 World Cup, when all four semi-final places were filled by southern hemisphere sides, prompted a drastic and welcome reappraisal. Joe Schmidt may have been the last of the Six Nations managers to cast off the old caution but having done so, he has made Ireland into the most exciting attacking force in the championship.

It's not always helpful to view the Six Nations through the prism of the next World Cup because the championship usually provides enough to be going on with in its own right. Yet you can't overlook the fact that, on the evidence so far, Ireland seem finally to have assembled a squad with the strength in depth required to be serious contenders for the World Cup.

In 2015, just a few injuries were enough to reduce Ireland's hopes to rubble. But things have changed. The combined absence of Robbie Henshaw, Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson would have been hard for any team to absorb. Yet Andrew Porter, Devin Toner and Chris Farrell in particular filled in admirably. In fact, Ireland's two best performers on the day owed their presence to not one, but multiple absences.

Farrell was only there because Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Jared Payne were not. Dan Leavy's chance came about because of the injuries to Sean O'Brien and Josh van der Flier. Yet both fitted seamlessly into the system, even if poor old Farrell's ACL injury suggests he might have engaged in one of those fairytale, 'Yes you can have your heart's desire . . . but there is a price to pay' deals with some Ballsbridge-based sorcerer.

The improvement in both creativity and strength in depth bodes well for 2019 and Schmidt is entitled to feel that things are going according to plan.

Not so Eddie Jones. England's hammering by Scotland was an upset but it underlined the fact that the champions have rarely played well in the last two championships.

Last season they scraped home against Wales and France but were given the benefit of the doubt on the questionable grounds that, "It's the sign of a really good team to win when playing badly." That contention looked slightly shaky when they lost to Ireland and this year it's only by the grace of a dubious TMO decision that they aren't 1-2 after three games.

For the first time there is a sense of doubt over the Eddie Jones project and it appears that the previously unflappable Aussie is rattled too. Why else would he use his unpleasant experience with Scottish fans on a train as an excuse to take potshots at Scottish pundits who he claimed were partly responsible because they'd used incendiary language? This is pretty rich stuff coming from a man who since landing in this part of the world has slagged off rivals left right and centre, even bringing Johnny Sexton's parents into it in an effort to play mind games with our out-half.

Maybe Eddie should go home. He's become a Whinging Pom.

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