By Phil Rice
Ireland’s first two matches in this year’s Six Nations have been sobering experiences – “reality checks,” as Joe Schmidt described them. Unrealistic talk of favouritism for the autumn World Cup in Japan has been brought into stark focus.
Not that Ireland should be too downhearted after two average performances against England and Scotland, but there is a realisation that there is much to do if the desire to smash the glass ceiling preventing Ireland from progressing beyond the quarter-final stage of the World Cup, is to be achieved.
On reflection there have been several reasons for Ireland’s mediocre performances.
Their much-vaunted half backs have performed at less than their best. In this case, that one has led to the other. Conor Murray’s poor form has affected Johnny Sexton’s ability to shine as we know he can.
Murray is clearly struggling with the neck injury he suffered in the third Test in Australia last summer. One of his strengths over the years has been his tireless work in defence and there have been numerous examples of where he has brought off last ditch try saving tackles.
So far in this Six Nations he has been conspicuous by his absence in the back field, assisting the back three in their defensive duties. He has also been rushed in both his box kicking and his passing, as he keeps one eye on advancing opponents.
Looking at the video of his try against Scotland, he looked around and saw there were no defenders close to him, but still didn’t advance towards the posts to provide a more kickable conversion.
Could it be because he didn’t want a Scottish player to dive on him in the act of scoring? He is clearly protecting himself from aggravating his serious neck injury. He wants to play in the World Cup and is trying not to worsen his injury before then.
The knock-on effect of this is that Sexton and his backline are not getting the service they require, and the team are missing the box kicking accuracy that Murray usually provides.
Schmidt needs to make a decision as to whether a 70 per cent fit Murray is as good as a 100 per cent fit Cooney, Marmion or McGrath.
On the evidence so far, the latter would be preferable. I suspect either Cooney or Marmion, who has recovered from injury, will play against Italy and possibly France.
Murray has been such an inspirational figure for the whole team for a number of years and the rest of the players look to him for leadership and inspiration.
When he is playing with the fear of being hit and suffering a significant injury to his neck, the whole team suffer a greater loss than just a scrum half playing poorly.
It was good to see London Irish bound Sean O’Brien last for 65 minutes against Scotland, but he would be the first to admit that he was nowhere near his best.
He will need to provide further evidence of his injury recovery, if he is to re-establish himself at open-side. Dan Leavy’s dynamism has been sadly missed so far.
Expect Iain Henderson to make a welcome return in the second-row against Italy and his powerful presence will make a significant difference.
It’s a shame that Tadhg Beirne’s injury has prevented him from showing his talents in the Six Nations. He will have limited opportunity to impress Schmidt before the World Cup squad is determined.
James Ryan has shown himself to be extremely durable and he is one player who has maintained his form in the tournament so far.
Apart from his excellent try, Jacob Stockdale has shown much improved defensive qualities and he is fast becoming a world class wing. He instinctively takes the right options and his kick ahead for Murray’s try was superbly positioned.
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After his unsuccessful foray at fullback expect Robbie Henshaw to return to his usual position at centre, assuming he is passed fit.
Rob Kearney did enough to convince that he still has much to offer as a reliable fullback. But the Italian game might suit the running skills of Jordan Larmour and he may well start in the number 15 jersey.
Garry Ringrose is recovering quicker than expected from his hamstring strain and Schmidt will want to get his partnership with Henshaw re-established as soon as possible.
Joey Carbery showed great maturity when he recovered from his suicidal intercepted pass for Scotland’s try, and was key to Ireland’s dominance in the second half.
Strength in depth
Although Sexton is expected to be fit for this week’s game it would be no surprise if Schmidt opts for the Munster out half.
Dave Kilcoyne and Andrew Porter have shown up well in their substitute performances and they may get the nod to start, giving Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong a welcome rest.
While there is evidence that Ireland have greater strength in depth than in the past, there is still a fall-off in standard when key players are either absent or not performing at their best.
Schmidt will want to see a marked improvement in the remaining Six Nations matches in order to restore the confidence that has been evident during the past couple of years.