Matt Williams: One win over England doesn’t mean Ireland’s problems are solved
This was Ireland’s best performance since March 2018 - it needs to become habitual
Keith Earls scores for Ireland in their Six Nations win over England. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Last Saturday’s comprehensive drubbing of the old enemy was greeted by the country like a prodigal son who unexpectedly knocks at the front door with swag full of Pfizer vaccines.
What was lost, now is found. Fire up the barbie, kill the fatted calf and get inoculated. All too good to be true.
The Dáil passed the hotel quarantine laws, AstraZeneca was back on the market and the coalition produced a climate change policy as green as the Irish jersey. Because Ireland beat England all our problems are solved . . .
Nah, I’m not buying that either.
Ireland do deserve great credit for an excellent performance against England. The entire team played at a standard we have not seen since 2018. What separates this performance from all the others under Andy Farrell and his attack coach Mike Catt is that the Irish attack was highly effective.
For example, Keith Earls’ try was scored from a well thought out but simple set play. The last time we saw that thinking was on St Patrick’s Day 2018 when CJ Stander scored blinder of a set-piece try at Twickenham.
Last week the forwards ran onto the ball with pace and intent that we have not seen in years. While the backs still ran across the field, as crooked as a dog’s hind leg, Ireland as a collective rediscovered the key to creating ‘high speed metres’ in attack. Which is running at speed before accepting the ball flat, from accurate passes. With such technical simplicity Ireland repeatedly bent and broke the English defensive line.
Unlike the early rounds of the championship Ireland’s short kicking game was terrific, as was their chasing. Hugo Keenan’s work under a high ball in both attack and defence has been flawless.
From the kicking tee, Sexton remained rhythmical and machine-like as he has been right across the championship. As his laser accuracy mounted scoreboard pressure on the English, they crumbled. They appeared as surprised as the rest of the country about what was happening to them.
This week, in what once was the beating heart of the British Empire, rugby’s Royal Court is attempting to dish out blame and retribution for anything less than their version of a perfect season. The mindless mob are calling for the RFU to break their contract with the coach who got them to a World Cup final and won the Six Nations and the Autumn Nations Cup in 2021.
Uneducated group think.
English rugby does have a long history of self-harm. The year after Clive Woodward created a High Performance Unit that won England their only World Cup in 2003, the RFU systematically deconstructed all the processes Clive had built around the national team. It was the most monumental failure of governance I have ever witnessed regarding a national team. To actually destroy the systems that had just won them their only World Cup takes some amount of arrogance and incompetence.
If the RFU repeat that ineptitude and Eddie Jones is terminated, it will favour Ireland because England will be a weaker opponent at the 2023 World Cup without Jones’ intellect and experience as their guide.
Let’s hope wiser heads prevail on both sides of the Irish Sea. While the RFU will not tolerate a poor tournament, the IRFU seem happy to tolerate three in a row. Go figure that one out.
The reality is that one poor Six Nations campaign does not label Jones and his English team failures and one excellent Irish win over England does not make Ireland habitual high performers.
Aristotle observed that “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.” If we follow Aristotle’s advice, both the English and Irish rugby unions should be aiming for repeated excellence.
Last weekend’s result does not change the need for both unions to conduct comprehensive reviews of their coaches and their coaching processes. Not to terminate any coach, but rather to comprehend why both teams could play so poorly and so brilliantly in the same tournament.
If Ireland sit back over the next eight months and believe all their problems are resolved because they defeated England, then down the line failure surely awaits. One excellent performance - and it was excellent - does not equate to long term excellence.
After the failure of 2019 World Cup the IRFU set goals. Win two Six Nations with one Grand Slam as a minimum before 2023. Those are realistic goals that need to be ruthlessly pursued. If the IRFU are truly in the pursuit of excellence at the next World Cup, a rigorous, cleansing review, that shines sunlight into all the dark places must be undertaken.
The performance against England was high quality. However, the reality is that excellence as a habit is not yet in this Irish team. It is the IRFU’s responsibility to find out why the team’s attack has been poor for so long and then improved so dramatically against England.
Was it serendipitous luck or quality coaching?
This process must be undertaken so that in the future we get more Irish attack like we saw last week and less of what we witnessed in all the games since St Patrick’s Day 2018.