As we survey the first two rounds of the Six Nations, Ireland find themselves in a tight spot. Two games played, two losses is not a good stat, but it’s the manner of the defeats that concerns. Andy Farrell’s men have been no better than mediocre and although there’s plenty of endeavour, stardust is pretty thin on the ground.
Most worrying of all is the listless nature of Irish performances and the inability to score tries. There was, at least, a semblance of attacking shape in Ireland’s opening loss to Wales and the visitors played quite well until Peter O’Mahony’s moment of madness tilted the game in Wales’s favour. In fact, Ireland’s performance with 14 men was pretty spirited, in fairness.
However, even then, Farrell’s men only managed one try. If Irish underperformance was understandable in that context, the French game last week was a severe regression. In terms of attacking ideas, Ireland were virtually non-existent, the only innovation being, err, the tactical novelty that is the Garryowen!
If you didn’t know better, you’d swear it was mid-nineties’ fare. And despite the tactic clearly not working, Billy Burns and his outside backs kept coming back to it-the definition of insanity and all that.
Speaking of Burns, the Ulster ten showed again that he is slightly lacking at the highest level. Don’t get me wrong, Ireland’s reserve fly-half is a decent provincial player who’s done fine things for his club these past couple of seasons.
But he is not yet equipped to boss and dominate a Six Nations encounter at this elite level. Ditto Ross Byrne. Ross’s brother Harry may be the heir apparent, but throwing a supremely talented young fella in at the deep end isn’t the answer either.
So, what does that leave us with? Johnny Sexton! Sexton remains Ireland’s best ten by a country mile, even in the autumn of his career. And that’s a disconcerting thought.
Ireland’s best ever ten has to retire at some stage, but the thought is currently inconceivable given the lack of viable contenders for the throne. Until Joey Carbery returns, there just isn’t an alternative anything close to the same level.
That said, it’s unfair to highlight individuals in discussing Ireland’s lack of creative spark. Farrell has been in the top job for well over a year now and yet his vision is hard to discern.
A brilliant assistant and defence coach, what does an Andy Farrell side look like? What are the hallmarks? We’re still not sure. Yes, there’s plenty of huff, puff and toil, but what’s the grand plan? Integral to all this is Mike Catt.
An unlikely choice, maybe, as attack coach, Catt’s vision is also proving elusive. Apart from his stellar playing career, Catt’s coaching resume is limited, bar a spot on Stuart Lancaster’s doomed England coaching ticket, and a support role with Conor O’Shea’s Italy in recent seasons.
We’ve discussed before the lack of superstars in Ireland’s current panel, but a lack of ambition is altogether harder to defend. Catt may yet prove to be brilliant, but it’s been a baptism of fire so far.
In terms of proving his credentials, however, Ireland’s next opponents, Italy (a side Catt obviously knows well), is a decent place to start!
And that’s the problem for Ireland. The Six Nations is all about momentum and after two rounds, Farrell’s men are playing catch up. Italy will fancy their chances of upset, but even an uninspiring Ireland should have enough to get the job done.
But even then, Ireland still finish with two really tough games: a revitalised Scotland away and then old enemy England at home. Who’d be in Farrell’s shoes?!
And that’s the catch-22. Ireland’s coach needs to experiment a little and spread his wings. He also needs to roll the dice in terms of selection. After all, the World Cup is only two years away.
But he also needs to win or he’ll lose his job. That’s why the Wigan great has so little room for manoeuvre. It’s the tightest of balancing acts.
This is the ultimate transition phase. As anyone who followed Ireland in the late nineties knows, transition phases are zero craic. For what it’s worth, I think Ireland will regroup and recover well.
They may even win all three remaining games. But Farrell needs performances to match. Now, more than ever, his players need to stand up and be counted for him.
P.S. I’ve just finished the comedian, David Baddiel’s new book, Jews Don’t Count. It makes for a fascinating, if at times, uncomfortable read. Nominally about anti-Semitism, Jews Don’t Count focuses on the blind spot held by many progressives in discussing the issue compared to other forms of racism.
It is extremely thought provoking and challenging for anyone not from a Jewish background. It forces us to confront some truths which are difficult to acknowledge. But it’s an important work and everyone, regardless of political persuasion, should read it. It is essential reading. I’m glad I did and it’s helped me look inwards-in a really good way!