Ireland started well but by the end they were hanging on. However, there were encouraging signs from Schmidt's patched up side
By Whiff of Cordite
Ireland managed a draw in their opening match against Wales, and with the dust settling on the performance and result, the feeling is one of the glass being half full. We were fearful going into the game, so a draw was a better outcome than expected. Blowing a 13-0 lead is usually cause for regret, but in the end it was Ireland who were hanging on, as Wales edged the second half. In short, we’ll take it and move on to Paris
A classically Oirish performance
Anyone who recently read Tom English’s No Borders will recognise that this performance could have come at any time in our history. A roaring start, followed by a sticky patch in the middle and hanging on at the end; it’s the classic Oirish template from the amateur era.
While much has been made of Schmidt’s mentality sea-change, making Ireland more process-focused, and less reliant on emotion, this was a bit of a throwback to the Deccie Kidney, Warren Gatland or Mick Doyle era. Take your pick from any era in the last 100 years.
There was plenty of pre-match hullabaloo about Wales’ ritzy twin-openside backrow, but in the end they were dominated by Ireland’s somewhat more mundane workhorses. Despite all the ‘genuine 7s’ being on one team it was Ireland who won the breakdown thanks to their effective clearing technique. Justin Tipuric never quite got his linking game going, and for all his outstanding talent, the criticism against him remains that he can spend too long on the fringes of matches.
For Ireland, Stander was superb on his debut, Tommy O’Donnell was his usual Stakhanovite self and Jamie Heaslip was probably the best player on the pitch, leading the tackle count and winning hard yards in the tight exchanges. With Sean O’Brien to come back, this unit can get even better. Meanwhile, for Wales, it’s back to the drawing board and the ambitious double No 7 experiment may be put away, with Dan Lydiate potentially returning.
Simon Zebo – worth the risk?
The most divisive man in Irish rugby continues to be the Limerick flyer Simon Zebo. At full-back he was dominated in the air and stuck a kick out on the full when under no real pressure having gone first receiver. He also showed questionable defensive decision-making at times. Correspondingly, outside Sexton, he was Ireland’s most potent running threat and contributed two superb breaks.
There’s a tendency among Irish fans to favour those who can do the mundane rather than the extraordinary but it would be remiss to underrate Zebo’s line-breaking ability and timing onto the ball. It’s a skill we lack elsewhere in the team, where the centres are picked for their defensive understanding and Trimble is selected for rib-breaking hits and kick-chase. Zebo poses a risk but a risk we need to take.
Expanding by degrees
If England’s win over Scotland was like the World Cup never happened, this game showcased a little more willingness to play rugby. Wales reverted to type a little but there were some encouraging signs that Ireland were looking to expand the template of kick-and-chase that has proved successful – but limiting – so far under Schmidt.
There was a desire to run the ball from parts of the pitch they have previously always kicked from, and if they aren’t quite offloading yet, it at least appeared on a handful of occasions like the ball-carrier was looking for the offload before sensing it wasn’t quite on. Ireland ran out of puff and ideas in the second half, but the signs of what they were trying to do were encouraging.
Ireland go to Paris and should win against a French team that appears to have taken up exactly where they left off. The only concern is that the French could scrummage them off the park. Ireland’s tight five struggled at times, especially on the right hand side of the scrum where Nathan White is a limited player at this level, and Mike McCarthy – for all his good form this season – it’s not certain he has the energy levels for this level of rugby.
His main strengths are the heft he brings to scrums and mauls, but Ireland’s maul – despite one very effective rumble – has been largely put on hold, and the scrum struggled badly. It could be that Mike Ross is patched on and wheeled out for 50 minutes of scrummaging, but McCarthy is likely to be retained for now.