Four issues to ponder in wake of Six Nations
Questions raised by this remarkable championship
Joe Schmidt effect to run and run
There had always been something false about Ireland’s final standing last season – the lowest since the Five Nations has become Six – given the ridiculous scale of their injury list. Even so, to climb from fifth to first in one fell swoop is remarkable and there’s no doubt that the turnaround has largely been down to the appointment of a clever, knowledgeable and diligent coach who is, quite possibly, the best around.
Ireland have developed a relatively low-risk but ultra effective brand of rugby which is founded on huge work-rate from all involved and, at its core, revolves around the all-round effectiveness of their work at the breakdown. The whole is bigger than the sum of its parts and those most familiar with his methods have been entrusted in carrying them out, but others will increasingly add to the mix.
On the back of this there is “big accountability” as Brian O’Driscoll put it, while expressing his mock relief that he won’t have to be a part of reviewing a “far from a perfect performance” on Saturday. “I think he has instilled a big confidence in those around him with his philosophy, game-plan strategy and detail. People buy into that product. Coupled with the natural ability of the guys playing today I think that’s a good formula.”
Tellingly, O’Driscoll also said Ireland under Schmidt were still a work in progress.
Pointers toward the World Cup
England can arguably take the most from the tournament given Stuart Lancaster has remodelled a young English side into a very efficient unit which has – critically given they will be playing their World Cup games at home– begun to generate a feel-good factor and a fortress mentality on and off the pitch at Twickenham. They also have a host of players to return to the mix.
As Paul O’Connell stated, Ireland can also use this Six Nations title as a launching pad for the World Cup, not least as it is next door in favourable conditions and with huge travelling and ex-pat support guaranteed. They have also ended their hoodoo against France – their main pool rivals in a bid to avoid New Zealand in the quarter-finals.
Wales looked leg-weary and drained of emotional energy by being bulk suppliers to the Lions, yet they should still have a more experienced side than England or Australia come the World Cup in what will be the most intriguing group of all. A genuine contender will go out before the quarter-finals.
France remain an enigma wrapped up in a riddle, their Top 14 does little to assist their national team and Philippe Saint-André and Patrick Lagisquet remain unpopular, but they have plenty of good players and always have at least one inspired performance at every World Cup.
Vern Cotter and Jacques Brunel have huge jobs on their hands.
Filling the O’Driscoll void
He’s gone now and there’s no getting away from it. It could be argued that O’Driscoll’s decision to play on for one more year has shortened Joe Schmidt’s time to develop a replacement but then another of O’Driscoll’s legacies is helping Ireland to a second title, for if not on the scale of 2009, it’s still doubtful they would have done it without him.
Besides which there was no one quite ready to inherit the mantle anyway. Then there’s his presence, with Schmidt revealing how the great one had been passing on tips to pretenders in his final season.
Uppermost amongst these is Robbie Henshaw, who has been a regular in training camps and thus a prospective understudy.
Much depends on the provinces, for if Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald could enjoy an injury-free run they might be given a run there, and Fergus McFadden might fancy a go.
Perhaps the biggest pointer will come from Ulster next season, and whether they retain faith in Darren Cave or move the Irish qualified Jarred Payne (initially procured as a potential long-term successor to O’Driscoll) to number “13”. But the show must go on and under Schmidt it is a team after all.
The return of absent friends to squad
Aside from number “13” the age profile of the squad suggests the bulk of them will still be around come the World Cup.
Admittedly, Gordon D’Arcy needs to hang on, all the more so given the latest concussion for Luke Marshall, but the quality of his rugby suggests he will not be fading away any time soon.
The frontrow is better stocked than for a while, Devin Toner was one of Ireland’s stand-out performers in the tournament, and there is still Richardt Strauss, Donnacha Ryan, Seán O’Brien, Stephen Ferris, Tommy Bowe and the aforementioned Fitzgerald and Earls to return and, dare one say it, the re-emergence of Simon Zebo and Tommy O’Donnell.
As an aside, in the absence of one of Ireland’s twin totems, keeping the other one, Paul O’Connell, fit and healthy is imperative.