Irish pack heading in right direction

Date published: November 25 2014

With their November Tests over, the bosses of Irish rugby can reflect on what has been an extremely successful series.

With their November Tests over for another season, the bosses of Irish rugby can reflect on what has been an extremely successful series.

Three wins out of three (two of those coming against southern hemisphere giants, South Africa and Australia), represents an impressive achievement in a month that has also seen the men in green rise to the dizzying heights of number three in the IRB world rankings.

Ireland’s assiduous coach, Joe Schmidt, will surely have gleaned a considerable amount from a series that witnessed the Irish extend their winning run to seven (indeed they have only lost three times since Schmidt assumed the hot seat: against Australia, New Zealand, and England), whilst still leaving the upwardly mobile Irish with plenty to work on ahead of the upcoming Six Nations Championship.

In assessing the tangible progress made during the past month, one area that particularly stands out is the forward pack. For that alone, new forwards coach Simon Easterby should take a bow.

There had been some concern over the future direction of the Irish pack once previous forwards coach John Plumtree left the role to return to his native New Zealand. Plumtree had been well regarded by the Irish players, and was instrumental in the superb performance of the forwards in last season’s Six Nations triumph.

In particular, the ex-Sharks coach revolutionised the Irish maul by making it a potent weapon that was inflicted on Ireland’s opponents to devastating effect last season. Once the Kiwi forwards specialist exited his role after the June tour to Argentina, there was a fear that the progress that had been made by Plumtree, and his predecessor (the World Cup winning South African coach, Gert Smal) would be lost. On the evidence of this series, such fears were not only misguided, but also emphatically wide of the mark.

The concern over Easterby related not so much to his rugby pedigree, which is impeccable, but his relative lack of experience as a professional coach. After all, prior to assuming his role as Schmidt’s assistant, the former Scarlets blindside’s only coaching experience was a two-year stint with the Welsh region he’d served with such distinction.

What is more, Easterby (capped 65 times by Ireland), had not really enjoyed prolific success with the Scarlets as coach, and his spell there was characterised by frustrated attempts to keep up with Irish powerhouses, Leinster and Munster in the Pro12. When Plumtree left the Irish set-up, therefore, it is fair to say that Easterby’s appointment was somewhat of a surprise within Irish rugby circles.

But Irish performances this November have completely vindicated Schmidt’s decision to appoint the Scarlets’ stalwart. In all three matches, especially those victories over South Africa and Australia, the Irish pack has simply been immense.

Easterby has evidently continued the excellent work commenced by Plumtree in respect of the maul. This aspect of Ireland’s game has functioned magnificently: slick, organised, and powerful. When utilised to its full effect, the opposition forwards seemed powerless to stop it at full steam, save for the costly concession of penalties.

Similarly, the Irish ploy unveiled against the Springboks of not contesting the South African maul, on the other hand, was novel and imaginative. Such thoughtful tactics clearly unsettled the South Africans, and were testament to hours of productive time on the training pitch. The Irish line-out also functioned well in the series, full of movement and variation (hardly surprising given that Easterby excelled in the line-out as a player). The scale of Easterby’s contribution in recent weeks can be measured by the fact that Plumtree does not seem to have been missed, and there was no noticeable decline in the performance of the Irish forwards.

Looking forward to the Six Nations, the only area of concern relates to the Irish scrum, where the men in green struggled throughout the series, even against the minnows of Georgia.

That said, these imperfections will surely be addressed by Easterby, and scrum coach Greg Feek in the weeks ahead, and in the final analysis, it does no harm for the Irish brains trust to have something to focus on after such a satisfying series.

To have accomplished a clean sweep in November is quite an achievement in itself, but to have done so without so many first-team regulars (Sean O’Brien, Cian Healy, and Dave Kearney to name but a few) is all the more remarkable.

It is a truism in rugby that all victories are manufactured by the forwards a team has at its disposal, while the backs merely decide the margin of victory. In the context of an ever-lengthening injury list, the performance by Ireland’s forwards must be acknowledged.

With odds indisputably stacked against them, the Irish pack delivered emphatically on all fronts. Evidence, then, that Schmidt’s astuteness had not deserted him in the appointment of his forwards’ coach.