With the Six Nations now done and dusted, we look at the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. Next up, Ireland.
As the opening weekend of the Six Nations came into focus, there was a level of expectancy about Ireland claiming a third Grand Slam or the very least another championship title.
Buoyed by the successes of 2016 where the men in green not only claimed a historic clean sweep of the Southern Hemisphere's big three but also a new found style of aggressive running rugby.
Throw in the fact that three of the four Irish provinces were in fine form with both Leinster and Munster qualifying for European Champions Cup quarter-final action as top seeds. Whilst Connacht just missed out on the final eight and suddenly Irish rugby was in perhaps its healthiest ever position.
All of these conditions made Ireland’s opening day loss to a much improved Scottish side all the more disappointing. Despite falling behind early Joe Schmidt’s men showed immense character to fight back and regain the lead. In seasons past the power of the Irish game would have seen them close out a victory against a tiring Scottish side. Unfortunately it was not to be and Ireland’s Grand Slam dreams were in tatters as early as the first round.
In the aftermath of the Scottish defeat questions were asked as to whether this Irish side had the ability to bounce back and challenge England, Scotland and Wales for the title. Clearly still seething from the lost opportunity at Murrayfield the Irish came roaring back into contention as they utterly obliterated a poor Italian outfit in Rome.
Whilst Italy were certainly a flawed side the fact that Ireland had so comprehensively dismantled their hosts with the now undroppable CJ Stander becoming the first forward to claim a hat trick of tries, put Ireland back in contention for the title.
With their tails up Ireland comfortably put France away at the Aviva Stadium, with Jonathan Sexton silencing all of critics with an assured showing following a lengthy injury lay-off. Just as Ireland appeared to have found their mojo they hit yet another speed bump as Wales upped their game to deny the men in green any chance of heading to Dublin still in with a chance of overall victory.
The Grand Slam decider as it was christened prior to the opening round, was now somewhat of a dead rubber for the Irish. Eddie Jones’s England had already secured their second successive Six Nations title and were on the hunt for the outright tier one winning record of nineteen successive tests victories.
Jones and his side rolled into Dublin as clear favourites, however if there is one thing that Ireland have proven under Schmidt is that they rarely lose at home. Despite a gallant effort, England were never going to deny the Irish in front of their home crowd the day after St Patrick’s Day.
As the curtains closed on the 2017 Six Nations Ireland can take some comfort from the fact that they denied their old enemies both a world record and a second Grand Slam. However any joy from the victory will be massively overshadowed by what was by all accounts a disappointing campaign from a results standpoint.
The Grand Slam and the title were there for the taking and the fact that Ireland let both the Welsh and Scottish games slip at crucial moments will be of concern for Schmidt and his coaching staff as they build towards the 2019 World Cup.
Whilst Six Nations come and go every season, the major concern Irish fans will have is the fact that this side may well have hit their peak at Soldier Field in Chicago. That performance against the All Blacks was clinical, direct and astute. At no point during this campaign did Ireland hit the level of performance that was on display on that day in Chicago.
To win World Cups sides need to produce seven high quality performances on the bounce. The concern for Ireland is that away from home with the exception of Rome, Ireland flattered to deceive.
Currently the Irish system relies on good quality set-piece ball allowing big ball carriers the opportunity to get over the gain-line. At scrum time Ireland were sensational with both Tadgh Furlong and Jack McGrath seemingly stamping their tickets to New Zealand.
At the lineout, however, it was an altogether different story. What was traditionally a strength had become a weakness as both Wales and Scotland poached Irish ball at crucial times. These issues were alleviated by the return of Munster captain Peter O’Mahony to the starting line-up against England.
O’Mahony is one the finest lineout loose forwards in world rugby and his omission due to the presence of Jamie Heaslip was questionable. Ireland’s lineout not only functioned significantly better with the return of O’Mahony, but the Irish back row had a far more balanced look with O’Mahony, Stander and Sean O’Brien.
With ball in hand, Ireland struggled to cross the whitewash again with Rome being the exception. To become a consistent threat to sides such as the All Blacks and England, Ireland will need to focus on their ability to convert pressure into points within the opposition 22. It is quite frankly not sustainable to only score following twenty plus phases of pressure.
Under Schmidt, Ireland have become a side hugely reliant on their system as opposed to playing what is front of them. When the system clicks Ireland are close to unstoppable, when it doesn’t performances such as the losses in Cardiff and Murrayfield occur.
The question now becomes, do Ireland currently possess the quality of player to play this style of game? The short answer is yes, players such as Conor Murray, Garry Ringrose and Joey Carbery to name but three have a skill-set that can match any in the world. In a country where rugby is the fourth most popular sport, many feel that not enough skilful players are produced.
This is not the case, with the correct game plan Ireland can take a step up in the attacking stakes. Connacht have done it at European level, whilst Schmidt’s Leinster teams were exciting with ball in hand. Perhaps what is missing is a fresh set of ideas, perhaps the introduction of a coach such as Ronan O’Gara or Bernard Jackman could add another dimension to the Irish game?
On a positive note Ireland are in good hands under Schmidt. The Kiwi is right up there as one of the top three coaches in world rugby. By all accounts a perfectionist, Schmidt demands high standards of his players and his coaching staff.
As the dust settles on the 2017 Six Nations, one can be confident that Schmidt is already hard at work analysing every detail of Ireland’s game. Yet, still one feels that the addition of a new attacking coach could alleviate some of the pressure on Schmidt and ultimately benefit the Irish game.
Despite what was ultimately a disappointing campaign overall, Irish rugby is certainly in a healthy spot and with a few tweaks to their attacking game and perhaps a coaching addition or two remain on course to be a major player in Japan come 2019.