Momentum so crucial for Joe Schmidt and Ireland

Result in opener at Murrayfield will go long way to determining Ireland’s campaign

Simon Zebo scores a try against Scotland at the Aviva Stadium. The Munster winger has been in outstanding form this season for Munster. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Simon Zebo scores a try against Scotland at the Aviva Stadium. The Munster winger has been in outstanding form this season for Munster. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

Momentum is the buzzword coming into any Six Nations in latter years. Win the opener, and all bets are on. Lose it, and that team is playing catch-up.

It’s not just the confidence that comes with winning the first game, it’s the basic maths too. The Grand Slam, and quite possibly the Triple Crown, are immediately out of reach, and already the title is a long shot.

Admittedly, the last time the Six Nations took place to the backdrop of an end-of-season Lions tour, Ireland roared into a 30-3 lead at the Millennium Stadium, helped by some stardust from Brian O’Driscoll and Simon Zebo (remember that gather from behind with a backheel) to ultimately withstand a typically wild Welsh comeback and win 30-22.

The Welsh media derided Rob Howley, then, as now, their interim head coach with Warren Gatland on Lions duty. Wales would win their next four games to retain the title, culminating in a 30-3 victory over Grand Slam-chasing England, while Ireland wouldn’t win another game to finish fifth in what proved to be Declan Kidney’s last campaign.

So much for momentum then.

Even so, when the dust eventually settles on this Six Nations, it’s hard not to imagine that the result in Murrayfield next Saturday will have gone a long way towards determining the campaigns of both Scotland and Ireland.

For one of them, both the Slam and the Triple Crown will already be consigned to dust. Indeed, when Ireland and Wales drew on the opening Saturday last season, that applied to both of them.

Joe Schmidt would most probably take a one-point win now, and with good reason.

Super shape

Jonny GrayTommy Seymour

“The way Tim Swinson is going is exceptional and you’ve Richie Gray to come into the mix and Grant Gilchrist is a really good player. Maybe in the past, sometimes there hasn’t been the depth. Scotland have started well and haven’t quite had the guys coming off the bench but I think they’re really well-equipped, as well-equipped as I’ve seen them anyway and that’s going to be a massive challenge for us.

“A lot of people have spoken about the Six Nations as a Championship. Between myself and Vern [Cotter], it will be very much a short-term focus. I think it’s a cracking way to start the championship. I think England v France is going to be a super game as well. There are so many good games coming up, I think it’s going to be a cracking tournament.”

Schmidt and Cotter are good mates going back to their time at Bay of Plenty together, never mind four bountiful years at Clermont which culminated in their sole French Championship success, but this will be their third and last head-to-head in the Six Nations. Cotter is moving on from Scotland at the end of the season and take over the reins at Montpellier next season.

“Vern, I think, was part of the decision as well. I haven’t really spoken to him about it but I think he has done a good job. I think Gregor [Townsend] has done a good job as well. I think probably if you put them together, it might have been the perfect scenario but you don’t get those scenarios too often.

“For me, you talk about competition for places and that’s one thing you really want to do as a coach, you want to grow a real stability and competitive element there. At the same time you want to see some improvement in the performances. Sometimes you don’t quite get the result like they did the last two times against Australia.

“I know this time last year we were all talking about the chasm that had developed between the Southern and Northern Hemisphere, that didn’t exist, but we were talking about it. In the end Scotland were denied a semi-final at a World Cup by one decision at the end of the game.”

Add value

Greig LaidlawHuw Jones

Of course, while Scotland, England, Wales, France and even Italy go into this Six Nations buoyed by some, or in England’s case all, of their autumnal performances, Ireland do so on the back of their best November ever.

Not that this guarantees anything, as Rory Best readily concedes, but alongside those wins over the Southern Hemisphere big three, which also gave his captaincy a new substance, the form of the provinces has augmented that November form guide; albeit that his own Ulster team are the exception.

“Whenever the provinces are going well, it naturally has a knock-on effect to camp. The guys have come in from the three provinces and they’re on top of the ground because they’ve been performing well and for the Ulster boys who’ve come in, it’s a fresh competition for us and we get to take a different look at things and try to perform within a different team and freshen things up a little bit.

“So from that side of things, yes, there’s a bit of confidence about, but at the same time we’re under no illusions. Everything that happened in 2016 has gone and while we can use that to improve and go forward, if we think that because we beat New Zealand in Chicago that gives us a right to win at Murrayfield, well, I think we’ve gone well beyond that as an Irish squad.

“We understand that we need to use results like that to push us forward to be better again at Murrayfield, because I think this Six Nations Championship, the way it is at the minute with the way Scotland are going, and the way Glasgow and Edinburgh are going in Europe, it’s going to take a performance equal or better to anything we produced in November.”

Top two

Graham Henry

So it is that Joe Schmidt has reset the bar from last season’s target of a top three finish to the top two, as he did in those back-to-back titles in his first two seasons as head coach. Last season, this reflected where Ireland were at, coming into a championship for the first time since 1999 without Paul O’Connell (in addition to Brian O’Driscoll’s retirement a year previously) and, for the first two games, without either John Hayes or Mike Ross either.

Those two ample frames had helped disguise a thin tight-head cupboard by playing a scarcely credible 79 Six Nations games in a row. This time around, the absence of Ross from the squad has scarcely been commented upon, and despite the season he has had, John Ryan might not even make the match-day 23.

The investment in Tadhg Furlong has reaped a rich dividend, a year in the squad having him well primed for his first Test start on the summer tour to South Africa, before his credentials as a true Test tight-head went up another notch in November.

The second row stock is strong, from the rejuvenated form of Donnacha Ryan to the younger tyros Iain Henderson and Ultan Dillane. The back row is so well stocked that one of CJ Stander, Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony, if all fit, will have to be content with a place on the bench at best, and that’s not counting the raft of other loose forwards in the squad.

For sure Ireland have their key men, especially Conor Murray, but if the Munster scrumhalf, Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw stay healthy then Ireland have a 9-10-12 as good as any in the tournament.

All hinges on that opener in Murrayfield, primarily the result, and also the heretofore low injury profile. Add in the infusion of Garry Ringrose’s supremely balanced running and the form of Simon Zebo, Keith Earls and others, and Ireland can be contenders until the final weekend.

There are still two more away assignments in Rome and, on the penultimate Friday night under the Millennium Stadium’s closed roof, either side of the visit of France. Nonetheless, history has shown us that this is the biennial itinerary which best favours an Irish tilt at the title.

If Ireland are still standing when the Red Rose fraternity come calling on March 18th, that would do nicely.

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