How do we assess Irish rugby after the opening weekend of the Six Nations Championship and the emphatic defeat inflicted by a reborn and resurgent England. Are Ireland just not as good as we thought they were? Have we all got a little carried away by recent achievements? Have Irish rugby folk completely lost the run of themselves? Have our collective delusions of grandeur been ruthlessly exposed a few months out from the biggest show of them all? Does Joe Schmidt and his squad need to go back to the drawing board? Actually, none of the above!
Ireland lost on Saturday to a pumped up England, by far the better team on the day. It’s rugby. It’s sport. It happens. Granted, we Irish tend to be tad myopic about our sports teams, but this Irish side is the real deal. Its imperious record over the past year tells you just how darn good it is.
More interesting are the reasons behind England’s triumph. Eddie Jones’s men smashed Ireland several yards behind the gain line, continually thwarting Ireland’s bid for momentum. Schmidt’s multi-phase game plan is based on superiority in the contact areas and England bossed that aspect of the game comprehensively at the weekend. It’s hard to implement any sort of attacking strategy when you’re lagging so thoroughly in the physicality stakes.
Think of any of the big signature defeats of the Schmidt era: Argentina in the World Cup, New Zealand at home in 2016, the Six Nations reversals suffered against Gatland’s Wales. They all have one thing in common. Ireland came second best in the contact areas. Schmidt’s precision strategy is predicated on winning the collisions and this is a severe problem. England were truly immense in their physical prowess at the weekend.
Actually, I thought Ireland recovered quite well from England’s stratospheric start (inevitable as it was given last year’s events in Twickenham). When Cian Healy drove over for his deserved try, Ireland had seemingly withstood the early onslaught and wrested parity from the visitors. But it was Jones’s men who raised their game thereafter. And Ireland had no answer.
Each and every time Schmidt’s side took the ball forward, they were smashed back behind the gain line by a dominant and painfully aggressive defensive unit. Sure, England flirted at times with illegality, but you could only admire the sheer doggedness and commitment of their efforts.
We certainly didn’t see this coming after November’s dizzy heroics. So, how do we explain the turnaround in fortunes? England were just class, we have to acknowledge that first and foremost. They are an immeasurably better team with the awesome Billy Vunipola leading from the front. And Owen Farrell is at last fulfilling his promise as one of the true modern greats of the game. He was simply mesmeric at the weekend. This was always a difficult assignment first up in the championship: a really strong England hell bent on revenge, equipped with a smart game plan and a massive team armed to implement it to near perfection. Fair play to them.
But Ireland haven’t suddenly become a bad team. Common sense tells us that. I’ve heard it postulated in the last few days that Ireland just can’t hack it in the physicality department against the really big sides, but I’m not buying that. Any team that can dominate New Zealand like Ireland did in the autumn has no such worries. They just lost to a bloody good team, fired up with fury and virtually at full strength. Such is life.
The English reverse is also a reflection of Ireland’s newly found, exalted status as one of the game’s leaders. It’s always easier chasing the pack than sitting with a large target on your back, waiting to be knocked off your lofty perch. But hey, that’s the price of success. Better to find out now than in Japan. There’s no reason to panic, though. Ireland must (and will) get better.