Wednesday 14 November 2018

All set for World Cup assault after unforgettable triumph

Dramatic victory gives Ireland extra impetus on road to showpiece

Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

If you have a dictionary app on your phone then you'll be familiar with the 'word of the day' that pops up first thing when you turn the yoke on. Last Sunday, as we dragged our sorry carcass to that remote, dowdy airport that serves the armpit of a town that is Cardiff, there was one of those sweetly appropriate moments when the message fitted perfectly the mood. The word was 'knackered.'

If we were feeling weary at how things had panned out the previous day in the Millennium, then yesterday in Edinburgh offered a very attractive alternative, albeit not straightforward. The trip to Murrayfield is one you'd call awkward rather then fraught. On the previous five Championship visits Ireland had won four of them. By early yesterday evening you had to amend that stat to five out of six, and with a style and energy we hadn't seen from this team since they opened up against Italy last month.

Just over a week ago Ireland had hurdled the two trickiest obstacles en route to the Grand Slam finishing line. As that week unfolded, however, we went from likely lads to empty-handed. The drama of yesterday, from Rome to Edinburgh to London, filled Ireland's cup again. If a Grand Slam would have left it brimming, then a Championship is pleasantly full.

It was a day of unceasing tension. The endgame in Rome had seen a 14-point swing: one second Italy were heading for a score that would have punctured Welsh hopes; the next Sam Warburton - who had done a fair bit himself to slow Ireland's gallop in Cardiff - was scoring at the far end. You see something like that and you wonder what kind of forces are at work.

In the end Ireland had enough going for them elsewhere to make for a happy ending. Aside from what it means in the short term, every moment on the training and playing filed is an investment in what happens in England in the autumn. This is something Joe Schmidt has studiously avoided, naturally enough, for looking past the Six Nations is like staring at a solar eclipse with the naked eye.

Now, however, his target is to warm up in August like an athlete ready to run a personal best. And then go to the World Cup and do just that.

The coach's only backward glance will be to pick up on the positives and learn from the mistakes made over the last seven weeks, and file away the form of the 20 starters he used over the course of the five games.

Unquestionably Ireland are further down the right road towards the World Cup. Our playing strength has never been better, which is not to say that all the bases are covered, but we are far better stocked than going to New Zealand in 2011. Tighthead is still a concern, and the disastrous run of injury suffered by Nathan White hasn't helped this. Moreover, at full-back you'd be more assured if there was an alternative to Rob Kearney - or at least one that Schmidt is keen to employ.

The best news is in an area where Ireland were utterly dominant yesterday. Last week a Scottish colleague called, looking for a list of contenders for Ireland's back row. As in, how many players, fitness permitting, could Schmidt throw into that basket before deciding who to fish out. The list ran to a dozen, all of whom already are capped. So if you were to stretch it out to include the handful of operators with real potential of playing at that level - Jack O'Donoghue, Eoghan Masterson, Dan Leavy - it looks like we're the Silicon Valley of the European back row industry.

The issue now is how Schmidt uses his assets. The annual Guinness Rugby Writers Dinner is usually a source of good food and equally good crack, but rarely do you go along to the Storehouse in search of good lines. We got one this season though, courtesy of Andrew Trimble, who was there to collect his award for player of the season. Inevitably his interview on stage turned to the Schmidt Factor, for by then Ireland had just beaten South Africa despite a preamble dominated by who would be missing - not that many as it turned out, but it all added to the sense of achievement.

Trimble, whose career has been rejuvenated by Schmidt, described the coach's recipe in so many words as one that caters for all tastes but needs to be followed very carefully. On the Second Captains tv show soon after that he came out with the vintage: "Whatever you do don't think for yourself, do what Joe tells you!"

This was the very antithesis of what most coaches bang on about, ie 'player empowerment.' What yesterday proved however is that Ireland can follow the plan, and have the wherewithal to script a bit themselves when necessary. All of which pose a challenge to the coach in his quest to manage expectation.

Joe Schmidt tries to control everything: the thoughts in his players' heads; the decisions of the referees who influence his career; even what is written about the side. He is an incredibly effective coach, with an awesome record from Clermont, to Leinster, to Ireland - everywhere he hangs his hat soon enough there's a trophy or two underneath it.

As Six Nations champions the tide of expectation will wash over Ireland whatever he does. Just get out your surfboard, Joe, and enjoy the ride. Incidentally, the dictionary app's word for the day yesterday was 'mal de mer.' A bit wide of the mark that.

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