Sam Curtin, Deputy Sports Editor
Ireland finally delivered on a much-needed performance that provided the blueprint for the Andy Farrell era with a 32-18 win against England in the Six Nations last Saturday week. The win at the Aviva was Ireland’s first in five attempts against a team who has had their number for the past two years. The victory ensured a top three finish and turned the campaign into a decent return from a poor one.
It was a tournament of fine margins and near misses for the team who were good in patches but ultimately indiscipline cost them with Peter Mahony’s red card in Cardiff proving to be the turning point. This along with a Billy Burns missed kick for touch in injury summed up the team’s inaccuracy in a 21-16 defeat against a little fancied Wales team who would end up with four wins from five.
Inaccuracy and lack of imagination proved to be a theme throughout the tournament with a blunt attacking display proving costly in a two-point defeat to the French in week two. A 15-13 defeat which could have easily been more for Les Bleus who have lived up to their promise of being the most exciting team in international rugby as they prepare for a home World Cup in 2023.
From here, Ireland took care of Italy in Rome with the Azzurri being widely criticised for their performances in this tournament. They have lost by an average of 36.8 points in their five games and have not won a Six Nations game since 2015 with their current tournament losing streak standing at 30. There have been calls for a play between themselves and the likes of Georgia which would help to grow the game in other European countries.
Ireland followed this up with a tense 27-24 win over Scotland who have turned into the new France with the age old saying “you never know which team will show up”. There has been clear improvement from Gregor Townsend’s side who are in Ireland’s World Cup pool – more on that later. Ireland should never have been in a position to lose that game as they were 24-10 up midway through the second half but had to rely on the evergreen Johnny Sexton to kick a last minute penalty to snatch the points in Murrayfield.
And there was the performance at the Aviva, when the ‘old enemy’ came to town. There was always an edge to the Irish rugby matches, it’s just a shame that no fans could be there to witness the best performance so far of the Andy Farrell era. Ireland who had been criticised for their lack of imagination in attack, suddenly became a different animal and lapses in defence which were there in the previous games were replaced with a ferocity and desire to win the ball back. Whatever happens from here, this must be the blueprint for Ireland to build on going into the future which is something that arguably hasn’t been talked about enough.
Overall, it was a mixed Six Nations for Ireland. The positives being the excellent work being done by Paul O’Connell, particularly with the forwards and at the lineout which has improved incrementally since he’s been in the job and only a few weeks. The defence still needs some work while Ireland have to build on their attack by adding more variety and efficiency when they have the ball, both of which were there against England.
From an individual standpoint, Robbie Henshaw and Tadhg Beirne were fantastic and have become focal points in the team alongside the likes of Tadhg Furlong who showed why he’s a world class Prop and a near certainty to start for the Lions. However, players such as James Lowe and Billy Burns didn’t do themselves justice and have yet to arrive at international level and have a long way to go if they want to establish themselves in the team.
Where does this team go from here? One of the most important things that simply must be done is bringing through the young talent that exists in Irish rugby. There has been much concern about the depth of our half backs but in Munster’s Craig Casey, Ireland have one of the most promising scrum halves in Europe yet he only got game time off the bench against Italy. Ireland have also been far too reliant on Johnny Sexton who will be 38 at the next World Cup if he makes it that far. And yet, there are numerous promising out halves leading the line in the Pro14 with the likes of Ben Healy and Harry Byrne at Munster and Leinster showing that they can be the heirs to the throne for France 2023.
Speaking of heirs, the return of Joey Carbery at Munster after more than a year out with injury is another positive and will surely feature in Andy Farrell’s plans as we move deeper into the World Cup cycle which is ultimately what international rugby is geared towards. The main theme of each World Cup failure is that Ireland have lacked the necessary depth to win seven matches in seven weeks with a reliance on a core group of players to get over the line. Ireland have also been found out on the pitch with a failure to evolve leading to their downfall at the last World Cup in 2019 despite the clear warning signs leading up to the tournaments which included two hammerings by England.
Perhaps Farrell is justified by his conservative team selection as Irish Rugby is financially in a difficult place due to the Coronavirus pandemic with IRFU Chief Executive Philip Browne saying that professional rugby on this island will be in danger due to the lack of fans at games. With this revelation, the financial rewards from a high six nations placing take on a new importance with the wellbeing of professional rugby in this country at stake. Perhaps Ireland could not afford to lose too many games as a result.
Coupled with this, rugby’s profile could be in danger with the new CVC Capital Partners deal that is in place. This has provided the rugby union’s with a much needed financial boost but has raised concerns that Six Nations games could be put behind a paywall following in the footsteps of soccer and cricket. CVC only have a 14% stake but they are the richest investors in the tournament and ultimately money talks. The sport however does not have the same profile as soccer and could as a result turn fans away from the sport which is not good for the game.
Back to on field matters and moving forward, Ireland have work to as ultimately the World Cup is the pinnacle of the sport. That is where every team shows up at their best while Ireland seem to get found out and collapse. The fear is that if Farrell doesn’t begin to blood more young talent which there is plenty, we will sleepwalk into another World Cup and wonder yet again, what might have been.
Two years to get it right and decide if we go in hope or expectation.