Ireland edged past a resiliant Italian side yesterday but there are plenty of things to work on, including sloppy handling and poor discipline. Thank goodness for Iain Henderson
By Whiff of Cordite
Ireland and Italy served up a steaming dose of Six Nations mediocrity on Sunday, bringing a series of scratches to a sprakling weekend of quicksilver rugby…from the Southern Hemisphere nations. While it would be churlish to quibble over qualification for the quarter-finals, since it equates to the best we have ever achieved, and also given we have recent experience of not doing so, but this was not a performance or a scoreline for the ages. If Italy had a hooker who could throw, we may very well be having a different conversation today. But what have we learnt?
Ireland can still be wretched
Joe Schmidt has worked hard to make Ireland more consistent. He inherited a team that was best known for its wildly fluctuating performance level, the best example being thumped by New Zealand by 60 points, a week after narrowly losing at the death in Christchurch, and over two years has brought them to a place where they usually perform to a decent base level. They won’t always win, but at least we know they’ll show up. So it’s somewhat reassuring to see they can still be truly, utterly awful when the occasion demands it. This was a rotten performance with shapeless attack, a poor aerial game and an ocean of turnovers. If Italy had a lineout the result might have been different.
Ireland will be better against France
Games the week before a crunch match can be like that. Everyone wants the game out of the way so they can focus on the big one. And it’s hard to imagine Ireland playing this badly when minds are sharply focused against France. There’s also the distinct possibility that Ireland want to reveal as little as possible before their most important pool match. Expect to hear plenty of suggestions for changes to the team, but barring the return of Rob Kearney and Jared Payne, it’s likely to be the same team that takes on the French. And so it should be; the best XV is on the pitch. Conor Murray and Sean O’Brien are unlikely to play so poorly two weeks in a row, are they?
Iain Henderson is the man
Okay, so we didn’t really learn this because we knew it already but Iain Henderson‘s worth to the side is growing by the week. He’s the new Eben Etzebeth. He’s been Ireland’s best carrier in the tournament and his sheer brutish strength is astonishing. He also showcased his ability to hold players up to enforce a choke tackle turnover- so beloved of Les Kiss. To think it was only three weeks ago he wasn’t certain to be in the team.
Sean O’Brien needs to Improve
He was credited with the most carries over the gain line, but they can’t have been very far over the gain line. Sean O’Brien doesn’t look at his explosive ball-carrying breakdown-demolishing best. Ireland really need him to be because we don’t really have any other players who can do what he does. However, we do have Chris Henry available and he brings something different, but no less useful: nuisance value. Ireland won a six nations with O’Brien injured and it was Henry who took his place, and excelled, so we doubt that Schmidt is afraid to use the Ulsterman if it’s the best pick. O’Brien needs to rediscover his mojo.
The Monday video review will be grim
Schmidt’s Monday video reviews have become notorious and this one should go on until the early hours of Tuesday morning. It was that sloppy. None of the starting team will be looking forward to this one. After Simon Zebo put a kick past the dead ball line, he looked like a man who had already fast-forwarded to the video session in his mind. And the likes of Shane Horgan have been vocal about the emphasis Schmidt puts on his teams being aerially dominant. It’s hard to recall more than one kick that they won back. Throw in the multiple knock ons, indiscipline and mediocre mauling and the players are looking at a long, painful session.