Monday 26 February 2018

Schmidt reminds critics that a basic game can be remorselessly efficient

Ireland's Peter O'Mahony wins a lineout. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ireland's Peter O'Mahony wins a lineout. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Some days a team just has to win. Some days victory is the only option. Some days players have to show who they really are. It may sound odd given that two of Ireland's last three Six Nations campaigns have finished with title-deciding matches but this may well have been the most important championship game of the Joe Schmidt era.

Lacklustre all season, Ireland faced the prospect of losing against Scotland, Wales and England for the first time since 1998, back when there seemed more chance of us being overtaken by Italy than overhauling England. A loss would have seen the progress of the last few years set at nought and confirm this year's campaign as the worst by an Irish team since the colossally disastrous World Cup ten years ago.

In the circumstances it wasn't surprising that Ireland played like a team who simply couldn't afford to lose. If they were not in the last ditch, they were at least in the penultimate one.

Their reaction was glorious. The rich promise of the winter internationals, which had seemed somewhat illusory so far this year, was borne out by a classic Irish ambush. For all the stutters early in the championship, Ireland have now beaten the All Blacks, Australia and England in the space of a few months.

We have done this to English teams before and we have done it in the same manner. The way Ireland went about their business was basic, it was brutal and it was remorselessly efficient. Perhaps no one epitomised the changed nature of the Irish performance than the two additions to the pack, Iain Henderson and Peter O'Mahony.

A powerful performance against France in the World Cup two years ago suggested Henderson might one day fill the massive shoes of Paul O'Connell. Things have not gone to plan for the Ulster man since but he remains our one potentially world-class second row. He came of age as an international player in this one. There was a hint of O'Connell about his drive for the Irish try and more than a hint about the way he put the English lineout under pressure all day.

That try originated from a O'Mahony lineout take, just one moment which proved that it was a blessing in disguise for Ireland when Jamie Heaslip went over on his ankle in the warm-up. The result was a better balanced back-row, and O'Mahony's aggression set the tone for a dominant Irish pack performance. The lineout he stole near the Irish line six minutes from time underlined the lunacy of ever selecting an Irish team without O'Mahony in the starting XV. Napoleon famously demanded that a general be lucky. Joe Schmidt was a lucky general to have 80 minutes of Peter O'Mahony at the Aviva. The athletic and mobile English pack seemed at times ill suited to the more artisan requirements of forward play. Simply put, Ireland looked like a team with more substance. They were harder, they were stronger and they were tougher.

Ireland were by and large dominant in the front five, where Tadhg Furlong was outstanding and surer too at half-back. England may claim that they didn't set out to target Johnny Sexton but there were too many borderline hits for it to be coincidental. Sexton toughed it out as he does. Kieran Marmion, faced with an impossible deputising job, lacked neither confidence nor energy. One vital last-ditch tackle on a rampant Elliott Daly brought back memories of a similarly crucial intervention by Peter Stringer on Dan Luger on another afternoon when Ireland played spoilsport. And when you see a neophyte like Luke McGrath come on and produce something like the late kick which stuck the final nail in the English coffin, it speaks volumes about Irish confidence in the set-up and the manager. Jared Payne's collywobbles under the first couple of high balls made you long for the aerial dependability of Rob Kearney but one scything second-half run showed the advantage of having someone prepared to have a go from deep at No 15.

England deserve credit for their amazing unbeaten run but on the day they were clearly second best and could have been out of contention by half-time. The change a year has wrought was exemplified by the travails of Billy Vunipola, apparently unstoppable 12 months ago, simply cumbersome this time round. The conditions suited Ireland and so perhaps did a slight over confidence from England. There are times when it may not be the best thing in the world to have an arrogant braggart as your manager.

There is a tendency to suggest that for Ireland to beat top opposition we need to adopt a more expansive approach. You know the sort of thing, offloads galore and the ball being spun to the wing with abandon. Yet the Schmidt era has been based on the notion that a more basic game, a ten-man game if needs be, can be remorselessly efficient if perfectly executed. After all New Zealand won a World Cup final six years ago on a 9-8 scoreline.

The brand of rugby Ireland produced yesterday was one which players of an earlier era would have recognised easily. The flowing stuff which England uncorked against Scotland was nowhere to be seen. Starved of possession, the likes of Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson looked unhappy and unsure when they did get their hands on the ball. Ireland had no intention of enabling an exhibition from the other side.

If it is frustrating that this victory did not result in a Six Nations title which was well within Ireland's compass, it is perhaps time for the critics to finally stop biting at Schmidt's bum. Time and again he has proved that he knows what he's doing. There have been considerably more attractive Irish sides but none which perform so well against the very best opposition in the very biggest games.

Irish rugby is not the only big winner after this game. So is the Six Nations. Two Grand Slams on the trot and we'd have been hearing, largely from themselves, how England had become too big for the championship and how everyone else should stay out of the way and let them take on the All Blacks on their own. This win did wonders for the integrity of the old tournament. And so did Wales and Scotland's victories over Ireland. Tackling the All Blacks this summer will be a team effort. One thing we now know is that there will be quite a few Irish faces on that team.

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