Irish rugby can mix it with the best but there's a long way to go yet

Irish rugby can mix it with the best but there's a long way to go yet
Peter O'Mahony in a line-out battle. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

The David Corkery rugby column

IN November of 1789, Benjamin Franklin wrote the following: 'In this world, nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.' 

In 2016 - 2017, Joe Schmidt and his players turned this sentiment on its head by adding one more certainty. That this current assembly of players and coaches have shown Irish rugby will now be feared by all other nations every time they take to the field, including the mighty All Blacks.

Throughout the decades Irish rugby has long been allied to unpredictable performances, spirited displays of valour and fables of what might have been. There was always one fundamental ingredient missing that all great teams need, consistency.

To me the word consistency in a rugby context isn’t about winning every game or never missing a tackle. Nor is it about winning Triple Crowns, championships or Grand Slams. Winning silverware is nothing more than a result of seamless cohesion between coach and player and this is where consistency becomes one of the most important facets in creating great teams.

Behind every brilliant outfit you will find a coach that remains consistent to his theories and remains loyal to what he really believes in, no matter how much external pressure he is put under. It is also crucial that his students are 100% behind in what the coach is trying to accomplish.

Ever since Joe Schmidt took over the reigns of the national team in 2013 he has most certainly done things his way.

Relentless in his quest to be the best, the most noticeable characteristic of the New Zealander's philosophy is the loyalty he shows to the players that he knows the longest. However, with the World Cup approaching fast, I personally think he needs to experiment a bit more and be prepared to lose a few games in order to learn where he needs more cover.

Looking back at this year's Six Nations I think it is fair to imply that this Irish squad are not as good as we first believed they were nor, are they as bad as the losses to Scotland and Wales suggested.

If we look at the Scottish game first and simplify the reasons why Ireland lost, what you will find is that Schmidt’s plan of bludgeoning his way in beyond the opposition's first line of defense is as predictable as what comes after ABC.

That opening day loss also confirmed that the level of freedom that he allows his key playmakers to alter the offensive strategy is practically non-existent and a lack of a license to deviate beyond the structures he implements curtails the natural flamboyance that oozes through the veins of players like Simon Zebo and Gary Ringrose. 

There is little point about talking about the Italian game because Italy are in a mess and it is looking like it might take many years before the foundations they need are solidified enough for them to build on.

The main issue for them and Conor O’Shea is that they did not evolve at the same rate as the other nations and their lack of resources is curtailing them from doing so. I would think that O’Shea is probably questioning his decision to move every night before he hits the pillow but we wish him well.

So after the Scottish debacle the next true test was always going to be against the French.

France came to Dublin full of life and determined to set a few records straight.

Guy Noves, who you might refer to as an old-school type of coach, picked a French side he thought might be able to subdue the Irish forwards. All they could do is achieve parity and despite his players moving the ball to the extremities of the pitch at nearly every opportunity Ireland’s defensive line was strong to its core.

Unlike Ireland where the union owns the players, France have a massive internal struggle on their hands with the clubs and unless they come to some compromise they will continue to underperform. They are very much a side in transition but with Noves navigating the ship they will not be found wanting for pride and passion.

And so we move onto Wales in Cardiff. This was the game to see if Schmidt had taken on board the lessons learned in Scotland.

Coming into this game the Welsh were hurting way more than Ireland. After stuttering past Italy in game one, losing to England at home in game two and then suffering the humiliation of a 29-13 point loss in Murrayfield in game three, Ireland was their last chance of receiving clemency by their public.

For me our Celtic cousins simply wanted it more and a team that wanted to play rugby yet again undid Schmidt’s game plan.

The loss signalled a sad end to our challenge for the championship and with it an opportunity to host England for a winner-takes-all, bare knuckle bout on the final day.

At this stage I think we all know how that game panned out and while it was a huge pleasure to wipe that insipid grin from the face of Eddie Jones, it can only be described as a hollow victory considering the opportunity that confronted Ireland before the competition commenced.

So what did we learn?

1. That Schmidt was happy with a second place finish.

2. That Schmidt is too loyal and is not prepared to reward in-form players with a starting birth.

3. That Ireland cannot function adequately with out Johnny Sexton even if Paddy Jackson is progressing nicely.

4. That Ireland are a one-dimensional team that can be exploited by teams that want to play rugby.

5. That there are better players plying their trade in the provinces then there are playing for Ireland.

6. That Ireland have all the ingredients to mix it with the best in the world but must be prepared to tweak how they approach different opposition. Holding onto the ball doesn't give them a divine right to win games.

I still think we are light years away from winning a World Cup but at least we are moving in the right direction. I think?

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