LAST week’s dismal loss in Cardiff leaves us with a familiar role on the last day of the Six Nations Championship 2017- that of a pothole for England’s chariot on their way to a second successive Grand Slam.
It’s not what we wanted, but it’ll have to do. It’s all we have left.
And that is what will rankle in the Ireland camp as thoughts turn to the Japanese tour in the summer.
What might have been? Back in November, it was hard to see who could live with Ireland on the road to this very weekend - Ireland v England with the Slam at stake on St. Patrick’s Weekend. It didn’t quite work out that way in the end, did it? We’re left in the role of party poopers to stop (a) England’s slam and (b) them setting a world record by going unbeaten in 19 first class test matches.
All in all, it feels like planning a huge birthday party for yourself and then only having Dave from accounts show up in his work gear with that weird onion smell he brings everywhere. That is to say, it’s a colossal letdown.
Whatever happens Saturday, this Six Nations can only be described as a massive failure for Schmidt and Ireland. Even a hearty win over the Auld Enemy will ring hollow because it’ll be exactly the script we’ve followed for years. Losing a Slam two years running due to bitty losses in Cardiff and against an England side as weak as they’ll be for years? Typical. Beating England (potentially) and France at home but losing to Scotland and Wales when you dominated every facet of the game bar the scoreboard? Ultra typical. And something will have to change.
That change will have to come in a number of areas. The attack most of all. First of all, it’s far from being the one out bore rugby that some, bizarrely, have labelled it. If anything, it’s almost too complex. Don’t believe me? Watch the Welsh game back again. Look at the overdone loops, decoys and pull backs on our set-piece attack off lineout and scrums and, if you want a specific example of that, look at Ireland’s 5m scrum in the last 10 minutes. It was all set up for a hard truck up the guts from Heaslip or Henshaw to build one out pressure but instead, the ball gets spun to the middle of the field for a narrow, intricate play that led directly to a Welsh penalty for offside.
It was overly complicated and needlessly detailed. Schmidt’s Ireland, when they’re playing badly, remind me of that guy in the office that tells you everything’s “copacetic” when he should probably just say everything’s grand, and then pronounces it wrong anyway. That’s my own overly complex way of saying that sometimes, we’re a little too clever for our own good.
Against Wales, Ireland were regularly cut open by Wales down the flanks and it didn’t take overly complex choreography, but instead they used simple chained passes with the length of the pass being the only variable. And they made metres. Especially off lineout ball. If we’re not set up to stop that this weekend, the likes of Farrell and Ford will cut our outside edge to shreds.
Ford and Farrell are the perfect men to attack off lineout ball and they do - regularly. 27 of England’s 62 tries over the last year have come directly from the lineout and that double playmaker formation is exactly what you’d want to work out Ireland’s narrow, aggressive line speed defence.
If something doesn’t change in the lineout and our set piece defence, Ford and Farrell will pull apart our defence all day long.
The lineout is an easy enough to fix - play Peter O’Mahony from the start and keep him on until the end. O’Mahony is the best attacking and defensive lineout back row forward in Europe - probably the world. I’m happy saying that without qualifying it by saying “one of the best” or “among the best” - he is THE best. Ireland’s lineout has looked desperate without him and it’s only rank madness from Schmidt that he’s not been plugged straight back into the squad. Something has to happen because our back row isn’t right. Against England, you can’t roll in with an off-kilter back row and expect to get away with it.
You can’t drop Stander - he’s too good. You’d struggle to drop Heaslip because on his day (which is most days) he’s the glue that holds Ireland’s pack together. The vulnerable guy is O’Brien, for me, because he’s not carrying, not sticking his tackles and he’s not jackaling. So what does he bring from the start? Get O’Mahony in a 7 shirt, give him licence to slow down the ball and wreck lineouts all day and Ireland will look 100% better.
In midfield, Payne will have to slot in for Ringrose. Not that Ringrose has done anything wrong necessarily, it’s just that Jared Payne has the defensive nous that the young Leinster 13 just doesn’t have at this point of his career. With Ford, Farrell and Joseph playing as well as anyone right now, we’ll need that security on the outside edge. Payne brings that.
With our lineout fixed, a little more width and brains in defence, and a simpler approach to our attack, I think Ireland can beat England this weekend.
A win won’t take a trophy but it might help get that mojo back ahead of the summer tour.
Another loss - or God forbid, a tonking - and we may as well invite Dave from accounts over to watch a box set of Geordie Shore because that, my friends, would be the beginning of something REALLY ugly.