After a memorable November series Ireland look forward to 2017 with optimism
by Phil Rice
The Irish rugby team began 2016 in subdued fashion with a draw with Wales followed by defeat to France and England. A comprehensive win over Italy was followed by a comfortable victory at home to Scotland.
Joe Schmidt had suggested that a mid-table finish was the most likely outcome of the Six Nations, given the transitional nature of the team. Schmidt realised that the relative failure at the World Cup was due at least in part, to the disparity in standard of his leading players, a number of whom were injured in the French World Cup match, and the reserves who took their places.
In order to rectify this situation some of the talented but inexperienced players at his disposal, needed to gain international experience and he used the Six Nations and later the South African tour to blood a number of these players.
The benefits of this strategy started to emerge during the Autumn series when a number of key players were injured and their replacements took the field and continued the high standard of performance seamlessly.
Players such as Josh van der Flier, Ultan Dillane, Joey Carbery, Garry Ringrose, Paddy Jackson, Tiernan O’Halloran, Tadhg Furlong and Kieran Marmian all looked to the manor born.
In all Schmidt handed out nine new caps during the Autumn period. This has generated a feeling of confidence among the squad and the superb results in November have put the team in a very positive frame of mind approaching 2017.
Many people have been saying the Ireland v England match on 10th March will decide the outcome of the Six Nations and that may well be the case, but Joe Schmidt is far too canny and experienced to take any of the matches before that date lightly.
This week Schmidt travelled to each of the provinces to speak with each and every one of the players who have featured for Ireland over the past month, as well as with those who have been on the periphery.
He said, “I will have a bit of a chat to them about how they have gone so far and where we need them to get to, because if you ever stand still you will get run over.
“We have got to keep pushing on.”
This time of the season is always a frustrating one for Schmidt, as he is forced to part ways with his players after an intense month with them in camp.
The players will meet up for a short stint in December, but Schmidt will only get the squad properly back together in the run-up to the opening Six Nations fixture against Scotland on 4 February.
“We don’t have them again for two months,” said Schmidt. “I knew this would be one of the frustrations when I came into this job.
“There was such a continuity coaching at provincial level where, week to week, you could plot progress, you could work with individuals.
“Certainly, our group wants the Six Nations title, but you want the title every year,” said Schmidt when asked about Ireland’s ambitions for the 2017 tournament.
He is well aware that Scotland continue to improve under his erstwhile coaching colleague, Vern Cotter, while he points to Wales’ win over South Africa and England’s long streak of victories as further proof that nothing will come easy in this Six Nations.
From Ireland’s point of view, confidence has been boosted greatly by the wins over New Zealand and Australia.
“We are working hard and trying to make sure the spine has a few more vertebrae in it, so we can slip a few more guys in and out of it,” said Schmidt. “But inevitably you get a leader like Rory Best, and you don’t suddenly replace him.”
“You get a guy like Conor Murray, who can control a game like he did in Chicago, you don’t suddenly slip somebody in and expect him to play at the same level.
“I think no matter what teams you look at in the world, there are players who make a difference every time they play.”
Indeed, Schmidt was happy to point out that injuries meant that many of the opportunities for less experienced players this month were ‘a needs must.’
“Robbie Henshaw was unbelievable in Chicago and I think that one man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity.
“Garry Ringrose came in when Robbie was injured and did a great job, and earned the 12 shirt for the Australian match.
“But where their big boys really started running at us, we did not quite have the firepower to stand square on the line and knock them back, where Henshaw has done that for us superbly, Jared Payne does it well too.”
Van der Flier’s performances over the course of the month were another example of a young player seizing an opportunity when injury struck down a more experienced man.
“It was no surprise he got man of the match in that game,” said Schmidt. “Well, it was a bit of a surprise because I thought Besty would be hands down to get it, in his 100th game. I thought it was going to be rigged for sure! And to be fair, I do not think it would have had to be rigged, I thought Besty was superb.”
Lots of good memories for Ireland in November 2016. As ever under Schmidt, the team will be immediately looking to the future for the next challenge.
Scotland in early February, bring it on!