Arrival of such new talent bodes well for Ireland’s future

By the end of last week’s game, half the pack was comprised of four recent U-20 players

Ireland’s Issac Boss, Martin Moore, Gordon D’Arcy and Devin Toner dejectedat Twickenham. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Ireland’s Issac Boss, Martin Moore, Gordon D’Arcy and Devin Toner dejectedat Twickenham. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Fri, Feb 28, 2014, 11:00

I’m not sure if it was last Friday’s Stuart Mangan Memorial Cup match in the Stoop where the 2015 RFU President Jason Leonard used my head as a cushion or my pre-Twickenham lunch encounter with the O’Sullivan brothers from Sneem, but I’m still in bits. What must the players be like?

Between the many obvious aspects of the herculean performance we had the privilege to witness last Saturday, one was struck by the make-up of the Irish pack; or more accurately the arrival of four recent Irish U-20 players onto the pitch.

This was the biggest game of Joe Schmidt’s six games thus far. England in Twickenham was never going to be easy and that he was prepared to give a first cap to Jordi Murphy, with Jack McGrath, Marty Moore and Iain Henderson completing 50 per cent of the Irish pack before full-time n such a key fixture tells a particular story.

A fifth ‘young fella’, Paddy Jackson, further diluted the experience on the pitch; again in a fixture that carried huge weight right till Craig Joubert’s final whistle.

New era
This is a giant leap into the new era and is worthy of reflection. That Moore was the first on with 20 minutes to go is a measure of the incredible distance he has travelled.

The U-20 structures have always produced quality players but in most cases, with the exceptions of Brian O’Driscoll and a handful of others, we have to normally wait and wait and wait.

The thoughts of the quartet above filling the pack in the crucial minutes of a Triple Crown match is unheard of. Stocking-fillers for the touring lower-tier nations is where we’d typically see them. Thankfully, that’s no more.

I’ve long since wished for Henderson to fill the match- day squad as I feel he is unique in his athleticism and ball- carrying, akin to the legendary All Black secondrow Ian Jones. On foot of Devin Toner and Paul O’Connell’s performances and with Donnacha Ryan et al circling, Henderson is a likely fall guy.

To fully prepare for France and ensure competition is rife, Moore should start against Italy alongside Sean Cronin. Henderson or Ryan could also start in the ‘row’ with Ian Madigan my choice for ten. And a close eye should be kept on Tommy Bowe’s performance!

Coming battles
With the coming battles in mind I have four questions.

Did we get enough from our scrum dominance? Did we tactically err in going off the top? Was our bench fit for purpose? And finally, and most crucially, are our concentration levels ready for the top teams – as both New Zealand and England have heavily punished lapses.

Two years ago the Irish scrum was the catalyst to an error-strewn Irish performance. When Mike Ross exited on 36 minutes Ireland were 9-3 down. We lost 30-9. This time, England appeared unaffected by the demolition from Ireland at scrum time. Could we have managed more from it? As the English wheeled under pressure could the Irish front have detached and powered on regardless, gaining ground, more penalties, a better attacking platform with the English pack in disarray?

Much has been stated regarding the off the top aspect of our lineout. Either way there’s good news; we can employ both tactics. However, the most appropriate time, is key. That said the lineout maul is a significant tool and doesn’t have to be employed close to the opposition line.

Low risk
For instance a short lineout of five men in midfield or further out will generally encourage the opposition to compete in the air due to the apparent low risk. This is an ideal time to maul as the opposition are not set on the ground. A very cheap 15 yards can be eked and with it momentum, an attacking platform and worst case scenario a kickable penalty. In a match of such tight margins a fast, short lineout in midfield that is mauled has huge advantages.

Clearly our bench has become a tool rather that a break glass resource. But with both Italy and France in mind our bench could provide more zip/impact than available last Saturday. Is there space for Tommy Bowe/Luke Fitzgerald/Simon Zebo-type influences? With Johnny Sexton possibly out of the reckoning for the Italy game is Jackson the right man to step up at 10?

My final question concerns concentration. The level of individual and team focus displayed by the Irish team in England’s opening onslaught that led to Jonny May’s ‘touchdown’ on six minutes was monumental.

It was significant physically in the incremental damage on energy levels which will have a huge impact on concentration levels. Why did the marauding Man United of past glories win so many matches in the 90th minute? The damage done to the opposition in the preceding 89 took its toll on their concentration levels.

Ireland have proved over six matches that they can live with the challenges demanded of our tactics (improving), our technique (vastly improving). We will return to the theme of our collective concentration next week.
PS . The statue in Sneem, commemorating their legendary undefeated heavyweight wrestling champion “Steve ‘Crusher’ Casey” is a very imposing sight, but in no way life-like to the O’Sullivans, Charles, Gerry, Steve and Kevin I met in London!

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