A hard-fought win over Australia wrapped up a wonderful Autumn series, in which Ireland earned their first victory over the mighty All Blacks. Beating both World Cup finalists and rising to fourth in the world rankings made it an incredibly productive month for Joe Schmidt’s side. The real questions emerging from this are: what did we learn from it, and how are we looking ahead of the Six Nations Championship in February?
Our back-row is now one of the world’s best, and has incredible depth too, with Josh van der Flier proving beyond all doubt that he has what it takes to play at test level. His rucking alone had made him a contender to feature in our strongest team, especially as Ireland’s only out and out number seven. However, a man of the match performance against Australia now puts him firmly in the frame to start the opening Six Nation’s game against Scotland. It says a great deal that we could take on the rucking prowess of Hooper and Pocock, with Sean O’Brien unavailable and Peter O’Mahony on the bench.
Such depth is replicated in the second row where Iain Henderson, Devin Toner, Donncha Ryan and the bulldozing Ultan Dillane can all make their case for selection. In the front row, Tadhg Furlong has assuaged any fears that Mike Ross would still be relied upon to maintain a scrum, even if he was practically immobile in open play. The platform of an effective scrum and lineout puts us joint favourites with England to claim the Six Nations title, with the very real possibility that our clash on 18th March in the Aviva Stadium will decide not only the championship, but possibly the Grand Slam as well.
There is much to look forward to in the backs also, as Paddy Jackson now offers a perfectly adequate replacement for Sexton, and Garry Ringrose putting in some assured performances at centre. The persistence of injuries within the Irish camp recently may be a blessing in disguise, as players such as Ringrose have proven they can suit Schmidt’s system.
On Saturday, we played a full half of rugby with Earls and Ringrose at centre, Joey Carbery, (a man playing AIL rugby six months ago) out of position at full back and, most ridiculously of all, our second choice scrum-half Kieran Marmion on the wing! Despite this, we still managed to cling on for victory. Australia were never given the chance to test Carbery in the air, or isolate Marmion, as Ireland’s ball retention and sheer defensive bravery held out.
Our attack is still unproductive, however, as our creativity seems limited to the boot. Simon Zebo’s little kick-through for Keith Earls on Saturday or Conor Murray’s Garryowens aren’t sustainable tactics in the long term, and can be snuffed out. Although we can carry hard through the strength of our pack and particularly with players such as Cian Healy, Dillane and Sean Cronin from the bench, we must improve our back play if we are to become a truly feared and varied team.
Sexton’s predictable loops or the simplistic hard carries from Payne and Trimble will not out-manoeuvre any top test side. This was evident in the Aviva against New Zealand when we failed to take any points while they were a man down. We are far more comfortable without the ball, although some solid possession against Australia shows improvement.
All in all, we are in good shape ahead of the new season with fresh faces gaining valuable experience over the autumn series. We now have depth in almost every position, and can
gradually develop with an eye to the next World Cup in Japan in 2019 without damaging short term results.
Players like Rory Best, Murray and Jared Payne will remain essential to applying Schmidt’s strategy on the pitch, but new faces such as van der Flier, Tiernan O’Halloran and Ringrose will be pushing hard for inclusion when the Six Nations begins on 2nd February.