Joe Schmidt reluctantly accepts defeat but sees signs of green shoots that will bear fruit in years to come
By Phil Rice from Twickenham
Any lingering hopes that Ireland might contrive to pull off a minor miracle and retain the Six Nations crown were well and truly dispelled by a powerful white army at Twickenham last Saturday.
However a brave defensive effort in the first half and an encouraging period of attack in the second and with the introduction of promising new players, Ireland could still reflect positively on this performance.
The three new caps that featured during the game promised much, with Josh van der Flier and Ultane Dillane being particularly prominent.
Van der Flier is an expert at clearing out rucks and given Schmidt’s liking for rucks and speedy recycling, he fits well into the style favoured by the Coach.
Playing in this way also demands the need to get go-forward ball and this was certainly provided during the final 15 minutes by the abrasive Dillane, who barged through tackles and set up attacking positions.
One period of interpassing between Dillane and van der Flier almost led to a try. In fact van der Flier was earlier denied a try by the referee and TMO when it appeared that he had got the touchdown.
Surely the question the referee should have asked was, “Is there any reason why I can’t award a try.”
Ireland are blessed with a number of high quality back row forwards and Jamie Heaslip must be wondering how long he will be permitted to keep the number 8 shirt. Although he has not played badly during the three games to date, he is not the player he once was and he was seriously outperformed by Billy Vunipola on Saturday.
It will be interesting to see whether Schmidt will continue to experiment during the remaining two games or focus on getting two wins and restoring some pride.
After the match he commented that,” We will keep working on the combinations that were new today,” which would suggest that he intends to retain the new caps for the next match with Italy.
Devin Toner continues to give whole-hearted service to the Irish cause and he certainly cannot be faulted for commitment but the prospect of an Iain Henderson and Dillane partnership in the second row in the future is very promising for Irish fans.
Schmidt repeated his recent theme that we are not getting any luck, he said: “I wouldn’t default to Sir Alex Ferguson all the time but even he said you’ve got to have a bit of luck.
“There were a couple of calls that frustrated us, sometimes you get that and a bit of a leg up from it, you gain some confidence and get a bit of momentum. At the same time you’ve got to earn that.”
With only one championship point after three games Irish fans could feel disappointed at the turn of event. But England had an almost first choice team available on Saturday and if you consider that Ireland have such talent as Iain Henderson, Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony, Luke Fitzgerald, Tommy Bowe and Marty Moore to return.
These are key players that no country could afford to lose without affecting performance.
The importance of having a strong replacement tight-head prop was demonstrated when our scrum was demolished when Mike Ross left the field. Marty Moore will become an increasingly important player for Ireland going forward.
Mike Ross is close to the end of his international days, although you wouldn’t think it the way he handled Joe Marler last Saturday.
Tadgh Furlong is developing well and needs to step up during the next 12 months. Rob Kearney was solid on Saturday but like Heaslip is not the player he once was and it would be no surprise if Schmidt played Jared Payne at fullback against the Italians.
The other results at the weekend have thrown up a straight fight between Wales and England for this years championship.
Ireland are not far behind both of those teams and two wins in their concluding games would give them a mid table position.
Given the number of absentees and the transitional nature of their season, it is probably no more than we could have anticipated. Victory in both remaining games is by no means certain but as both games are at home it should be achievable.