Brian O'Driscoll meant everything to Ireland - but when you have Joe Schmidt, you can lose anyone and still improve
Six Nations 2015: So much still to decide - where the teams stand
With England’s Grand Slam dream derailed, Ireland are now favourites to retain title... but the Welsh are waiting in Cardiff, meanwhile the French continue to frustrate. Here is how Chris Hewett in the Independent of London breaks it down.
Q | So what is it with this Irish bunch? Six Nations reigning champions, clear favourites to retain the title after the convincing victory over England, an excellent bet to feature at the business end of the World Cup in a few months’ time… can they really be this good without Brian O’Driscoll?
A | O’Driscoll meant everything to Ireland – he was, after all, the finest player seen in these islands in the professional era – but when you have a coach as smart as Joe Schmidt plotting your route along the highways and byways of the international game, you can lose pretty much anyone to retirement and still improve.
Evidence suggests the New Zealander can work the oracle every which way: during his Heineken Cup-winning time with Leinster, the rugby his players produced was the stuff of beauty; during Ireland’s current 10-match winning run, efficiency has been the watchword. The common denominator? Success, and plenty of it.
Q | Even so, it is a little odd to see Ireland in the top three of the world rankings, and it will look even more peculiar if they carry on in their present vein and overhaul the second-placed Springboks. Are you sure this isn’t a mirage?
A | Stats are stats. The arithmetic behind the rankings makes Fermat’s Last Theorem look an adding-up exercise for six-year-olds, but the fact remains: Ireland have not lost since England turned them over in a tight one at Twickenham this time last year – the best current run of any senior Test side in the sport, including the All Blacks. They are not the greatest in the tight-forward department and their post-BOD centre partnership is still bedding in, but they possess the world’s best half-back partnership in Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton, which counts for a lot in the great scheme of things.
Q | Fair point. But what happens if Sexton breaks down?
A | If you’d had your eyes open in Dublin on Sunday afternoon, you’d have seen what happens. When Sexton disappears from view, as he did midway through the third quarter against England, the control vanishes with him.
England had barely been in the game until that point; after it, they were in it up to their eyeballs. Schmidt has alternatives at No 10 – Ian Madigan, Ian Keatley – but while it would not be fair or reasonable to describe them as a pair of Jeffrey Archers up against Sexton’s James Joyce, the only people who might have the brass neck to argue for genuine equivalence would be the two understudies’ closest family members.
Q | So, if Sexton stays fit, Ireland head for the World Cup as Grand Slam kingpins.
A | It’s not quite so simple, despite the Sexton-Murray supremacy against England. Ireland’s next opponents, Wales, are also in the Six Nations shake-up and as the game will be played in Cardiff, with the likes of Leigh Halfpenny and Liam Williams in the Red Dragon back three, there is no guarantee that an aerial bombardment of the kind that did for England will suffice, even if it is executed with the same degree of precision.
There is a strong possibility the three leading sides in the tournament will reach the last round on six points apiece, in which case the outcome will be determined by the mathematicians.
Q | Are Wales in a place to mess with the Irish? It’s not as if they’re tripping the light fantastic right now.
A | It’s true to say that they’ve been missing a beat, but the rhythm of old is slowly being restored as Warren Gatland’s players forget about the miseries and privations of life in the regional set-up and remind themselves what it feels like to win a big game or two.
The Millennium Stadium holds no fears for Ireland – they win there as often as they lose – but they won’t dominate Alun Wyn Jones, Sam Warburton, Toby Faletau, Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies in the way they lorded it over the callow English.
Q | Talking of England, does anyone know for sure where they stand these days?
A | They’re better than they sometimes look on a bad day, and not quite as hot as they think they are on a good one. Stuart Lancaster’s record as head coach is decent enough: a win rate just shy of 60 per cent over 37 matches puts him ahead of all but four of his predecessors (although three of those men – Geoff Cooke, Jack Rowell and Clive Woodward – finished miles ahead in the 70s). It is also true to say that some of his more destructive individuals, notably Manu Tuilagi and Alex Corbisiero, have worse fitness records than the limbless knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
However, the inability of the side to string together a genuinely solid run of victories is beginning to look like the mark of Cain. Five on the bounce is the best they have managed thus far.
Q | And needless to say, they have yet to settle on their optimum starting line-up.
A | Very true. The solution to the everlasting conundrum at inside centre shows no sign of revealing itself and there are tough decisions to be made in every row of the scrum. However, the lock Courtney Lawes, who picked up a man-of-the-match award in his comeback game for Northampton last Friday night, will surely return for the Calcutta Cup contest with Scotland, and his presence alone will give England more edge and attitude than they showed in Dublin.
If they can just start a game in the way they have taken to finishing them, they could splatter the Scots all over London and head into the France match with a spring in their step… and, depending on results elsewhere, a title-winning twinkle in their eye.
Q | Ah yes, the French. What in the name Serge Blanco the Holy is going on in Tricolore territory?
A | Les Bleus have turned into 15 shades of grey – or, perhaps more accurately, 15 shades of decay. The coach of Old Muckyduckians Under-8s would be hard-pressed to extract every last ounce of joie de vivre from a rugby country boasting such dazzling talents as Brice Dulin, Maxime Médard, Gaël Fickou, Wesley Fofana, Jules Plisson and Camille Lopez, but the current France regime has achieved all this and more.
During his playing days, Philippe Saint-André saw himself as a prop in wing’s clothing, despite being heavily implicated in some of the most exhilarating bursts of attacking rugby ever witnessed. Now that he is running the show, he seems to be living his front-rower’s dream from a seat in the stand.
If Bernard Laporte, his predecessor but one, was guilty of Anglo-Saxonising the national team, Saint-André is in the process of stone-ageing it.
Q | It sounds as though the Six Nations has turned into two groups of three, with the French, of all people, joining Scotland and Italy in the also-ran category.
A | That may well be the case: indeed, with scrum-half Morgan Parra ruled out of the rest of the tournament with a knee injury, there is no guarantee that Les Bleus, winners of the Grand Slam in 2010 and World Cup finalists a year later, will beat Italy in Rome a week on Sunday.
They have not won there since 2009 and have no one playing as well as Luke McLean, Luca Morisi, Edoardo Gori, Joshua Furno or Sergio Parisse. Should the worst come to the worst for Saint-André at Stadio Olimpico, who is to say Fabien Galthié or Raphaël Ibanez will not be asked to take the national team to the World Cup in his stead?
Q | All things considered, then, who wins the tournament?
A | The Irish are the only ones not looking for a favour from someone else: if they hold themselves together, no one can stop them. But if it goes down to the final round of matches on 21 March – if England and Wales also get to the last knockings with three wins behind them – the deck will be loaded in favour of Lancaster’s side.
Why? Because they will play last, against the French, and therefore know precisely what they must do and by how much. It is hardly an object lesson in fairness, but that’s the way the broadcasters want it. Not that Ireland could complain. They won last year’s title in precisely this fashion.
Independent News Service