Momentum puts a smile on Irish faces as a new team grows

 

A full hour had passed at the Aviva Stadium last Saturday before the first Mexican Wave was followed by the day’s first rendition of The Fields. Perhaps nothing demonstrates how enthralled the crowd had been by Ireland’s potency; a fair achievement for a 2pm kick-off. “Smiling” rugby had sent all but the most begrudging away with a smile.

For once, Ireland have not finished a campaign on a bum note. For sure, one swallow doesn’t make a summer and all that, and after a year punctuated by missed opportunities and just two wins in the preceding nine games (at home to Scotland and Italy) Declan Kidney was under considerable pressure from an increasingly impatient media and public alike.

Like all coaches, he deals in a results business, and a strong Six Nations campaign would be no harm. The IRFU hierarchy appear to be taking quite a sanguine, wait-and-see approach to all the speculation about Kidney’s future, but in those circumstances they might well be then of a mind to offer him, Les Kiss and Gert Smal an extension until 2015. Supplemented by Greg Feek (whose work with Leinster and Ireland contributed to five of Saturday’s six frontrowers coming from the province) and Anthony Foley, the thrilling seven-try rout reminded us what a strong coaching ticket this is.

If history has taught us one thing, it is that Declan Kidney knows how to build teams. He’s done it consistently throughout his coaching career with schools, under-age and club sides, as well as Ireland A and Munster. Last Saturday, there was thrilling evidence of a new Irish team coming to fruition.

It hasn’t been without pain, and heaps of credit must go to the new officer corps, Jamie Heaslip, Jonny Sexton, Tommy Bowe, Gordon D’Arcy, Donnacha Ryan et al. Despite the disappointment of the South African defeat, they backed up their vows to atone for the horrors of Hamilton when the squad first came into camp on Monday, October 29th.

Fearless young players

An infusion of fearless young players rowed in behind them, and it would also have required egos being parked by some of the senior players on the bench.

Hence the willingness, according to one insider, to practice much of the slickly-executed moves of last Saturday almost to the point of boredom.

Lest we forget, Rob Kearney joined Seán O’Brien on the sidelines the day before the November squad was announced, Brian O’Driscoll, Rory Best, Stephen Ferris (six days before the South African game) and Paul O’Connell (three days beforehand) all followed suit.

No wonder Smal said the fortnight before that encounter with the Springboks was the most disrupted he’d known in his four years with Ireland.

But no wonder the lineout worked more efficiently against Argentina under the World Cup-winning forwards coach. Converting Simon Zebo to fullback, promoting Craig Gilroy and Iain Henderson from the Ulster bench, fast-tracking Richardt Strauss and Michael Bent, the backrow combination and persisting with the Conor Murray-Sexton axis, were all vindicated.

In the ’05 autumnal campaign without O’Driscoll and O’Connell, when Ireland were beaten 45-7 and 30-14 at home by New Zealand and Australia, fully nine of that Irish side were togged out again a week later for a 43-12 win over Romania. The Fijian game, when only the captain Jamie Heaslip, Mike Ross (out of a need for game time) and Murray (due to Eoin Reddan being injured) were retained, and three uncapped Ulster tyros were blooded, couldn’t in truth have been used any better.

Feel-good factor

The provinces might now tap into the feel-good factor. Furthermore, as the six or seven front-liners filter back, they’ll do so even more determined to rediscover their best form.

Ireland’s win was one of only three for Six Nations’ teams in 12 match-ups with their Rugby Championship counterparts, along with France beating Argentina and Australia, and Les Bleus go into the Six Nations with four wins on the spin after one draw and three defeats in their previous four Tests.

England need to end the All Blacks’ 20-match winless run at Twickenham next Saturday or else will end the year with just one win (at home to Fiji) in seven games. Wales need to win to secure a second-tier seeding and end a run of six successive defeats. The Scots, after an embarrassing defeat at home to Tonga, are looking for a new coach. Italy have won just four of their last 12, against Scotland, Canada, the USA and Tonga, although came within a kick of drawing with the Wallabies.

Yet, when Chris Robshaw made his fateful decision against South Africa, England were trailing by the same score (16-12) that South Africa beat Ireland by, and were pushing harder physically to salvage the game. When England come to the Aviva on the second Saturday (most likely after beating Scotland at Twickenham) they will be as tough to beat as ever, and ditto the rejuvenated French, who have won 12 of the last 13 meetings with Ireland.

But the opener against Wales at 1.30pm in the Millennium Stadium on February 2nd could be every bit as pivotal as it was in Dublin last season. The Welsh will be without Warren Gatland but ought to have Adam Jones back, and come then, as Kidney acknowledged, Ireland need to address why they were a tad off against South Africa.

However, after three mightily significant defeats in a row to the Welsh, it’s not as if Ireland don’t owe the Red Dragonhood one. And if they do, Ireland will renew acquaintances with two old friends whom they rediscovered last Saturday; Mo and Mentum.gthornley@irishtimes.com

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