EUREKA! Declan Kidney finally got the new high-tempo Irish game clicking at the final hurdle of the Six Nations.
The ball-in-hand game failed to click against Italy and though it yielded three tries against France, the loss saw a regressive kicking game implemented for the ensuing games. Then, with the pressure of a Triple Crown and title gone, Ireland cut loose.
There was talk about how important it was to stop England from winning a Grand Slam but that day is long gone. Now it’s all about performance and winning silverware for an ambitious Irish team. A win against England in the old days would be a season-saver but now it’s about how we let our own Slam get away with narrow losses to France and Wales. Yet, looking forward to the World Cup, the display against England was a huge springboard.
The big question now is can Ireland play with that tempo and precision on a regular basis? I think that performance has got the attention of Australia and with Italy’s step forward the RWC group is far from a formality.
The scrum, a weakness in the Irish game for some time, has emerged as a weapon. Mike Ross has been superb and provided strong right shoulders for fun. Cian Healy is growing into a dominant Test prop well ahead of his years. Rory Best has added power in the scrum and as a unit they’re becoming a grizzled front row.
The lineout had creaked due largely to a lack of jumping options but it improved dramatically against Wales and England. Paul O’Connell was a huge factor as he improved game on game to finish like the player we recall from before his injury.
His partner in crime, Donncha O’Callaghan, outplayed O’Connell and was the most consistent performer. His work-rate holding ball-carriers up in the tackle so as to gain an Irish scrum was vital to the new Irish defence.
The news gets better. Sean O’Brien has settled in comfortably in what is the best Irish back row for some time. When Stephen Ferris is hardly missed, you know you’re playing well. This will surely be Kidney’s toughest decision come the World Cup.
The other big question at fly-half was solved through Jonathan Sexton’s Man of the Match effort against England. As England have done with Flood and Wilkinson, Ireland look better suited to start with Sexton’s running game and finish with the game management of O’Gara.
Elsewhere, Rob Kearney may force his way back in at full-back even though Keith Earls attacked so well against England – question marks remain over Earls’s catching and kicking game. At scrum-half, Eoin Reddan has been in sparkling form and will keep the jersey.
Ireland can be confident in their ability to play a high-tempo, ball-in-hand game and will arrive in New Zealand as a real World Cup contender.
This article appeared in the May 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine.
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