Ireland’s 24-8 victory over England, and the subsequent derailment of the England Grand Slam party, had many pundits searching for the tip-ex for their pre-written Sunday morning columns on England’s glorious Grand Slam. However, was this a surprise, and, if not, are Ireland now worth the hype with some pundits calling the Irish performance the game of the 6 nations – one pundit has even gone as far as saying that Ireland should be proclaimed the team of the tournament?
Ireland have flattered to deceive this year, but for the Irish amongst us, this 6 nations will be another one of those that ‘could have been…’ Jerry Guscott tweeted that if they’d had Heaslip and Bowe for the duration they would have another grand slam in the trophy cabinet. Ireland are a very good team, bursting with talent, and with a game plan that is up there with the best in the world, but, for the first few games this was not apparent.
The last gasp victory over Rome had many Irish pundits waxing lyrical about the decline of the Irish squad in the run up to the world cup, with many predicting similar results to that of RWC 2007. However, let’s step back. Italy at home is a daunting prospect for any team. They ran Australia close in the Autumn. They had a half against NZ where they were boxing fresh, and they’ve beaten the Argentineans in the Stadio Flaminio. Surely any seasoned pundit knows that an away fixture in Rome is up there in terms of difficulty with the most intimidating venues. Ireland got a ‘get-out-of-jail-card’, and probably didn’t deserve to win the game, but the result, or near-loss shouldn’t have led to a character assassination on the team – something that the French later got from their own coach (!) after succumbing to the Italians for the first time in the Championship.
Next up were the French at home. Ireland were unlucky. They had chances to seal the game, but with players in the team that were out of form (O’Leary), just back from injury (Heaslip) or second choice (Fergus McFadden and Luke Fitzgerald), the Irish were never going to be at the top of their game. Granted, O’Leary, Heaslip and McFadden all scored tries in the newly refurbished Landsdowne Road. However, the key issue for this performance was discipline – the men in green were their own worst enemy, allowing Parra and then Yachvili to constantly kick the points that eventually proved their undoing. They outscored the French 3-1 in tries, but conceded way more penalties in kickable areas. Yet again the naysayers went into overdrive, but, wasn’t this just an early sign of a team trying to perfect a new game plan?
The third match saw them pit their wits against the Scots at Murrayfield. A team buoyed by the return of Tommy Bowe, won a hard fought victory despite a late surge by the Scots. Why was there a late surge though? The finger was pointed at Declan Kidney’s poor use of subs – which I believe is fully warranted – but, again, the infringements were high from the men in green. Ireland gifted Scotland 15 out of their 18 points – a stat that, put simply, only serves to make things harder at international level.
Next up were the Welsh at the Millennium Stadium. Ireland were abysmal – I have few shining lights from this game, apart from the fact that I missed out last minute on paying £70 on a ticket. Their tactical kicking was very poor – perhaps the main reason for O’Gara being dropped for the final game of the championship. Reddan lasted less than one minute before getting knocked out. Fitzgerald was exposed time and time again – leading to his warranted exclusion from the squad against England.
Fitzgerald has stated that he wants to play fullback, but on that performance, he won’t be playing in the 15 shirt for his country for a long time. This game highlighted the huge importance of getting Rob Kearney back and firing on his Lions tour form. Then there was ‘that’ try. Inches and inches have been written about how unlawful the decision to award the try was. The fact of the matter is that Ireland probably didn’t deserve to win the game. Wales were better. However, discipline had improved, and the poor performances were clearly not indicative of a team that needs to be sent to Coventry.
Redemption awaited in Dublin against the new swagger of the young England revolution in search of the grand slam and desperate to build momentum. Changes were made in the Ireland squad and the team were given a proverbial slap around the face. It was basically now or never. I’m not going to go into the minutiae of the performance, anyone reading this will know that Ireland completely dominated England. The point of this article is that the performance from the Irish finally clicked – and the joy from the supporters in Green was, in part, down to this. The forwards kept the penalty count low. The scrum was solid (until Mike Ross came off). The lineout functioned well (though, Jerry Flannery’s return will be eagerly awaited by Kidney). The backline was incisive in attack and dogged in defence. And, yet again, they scored tries.
Ireland certainly were not the team of the tournament. They finished third on points difference. I also don’t think they deserve the ‘performance of the championship’ award – that, in my opinion should go to the Italian team that beat the French in Rome. They shouldn’t be installed as RWC 2011 favourites up alongside New Zealand, because it takes a huge step up to beat the Southern Hemisphere teams down under. However, they should be lauded as a force to be reckoned with…if they don’t lose any pieces of the jigsaw before New Zealand that is, as they won’t get 5 games to piece it back together again.
By John White