Six Nations report card: A case of what might have been for Ireland

Paying the price for not converting chances; case for the defence; new laws please; England joy

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt and captain Rory Best give their thoughts after Ireland’s 35-25 victory over Scotland in the Aviva Stadium. Video: David Dunne

 

Ireland’s report card from the Six Nations Championship could be summed up under the phrase ‘could do better’ on the basis of winning the previous two tournaments and using that as the benchmark to judge the current campaign.

It may seem a little harsh when considering the absence of several key players, some for the first match or matches – and others like Luke Fitzgerald, Iain Henderson, Peter O’Mahony and Tommy Bowe for the entire tournament.

The margins, as they were in winning those two Six Nations, were minuscule, a 16-16 draw against Wales and a 10-9 defeat in Paris; the latter will perhaps be the greatest source of disappointment because it was a game that was eminently winnable.

Twickenham also served to tantalise on foot of some missed opportunities but on the balance of play in that first half, England will feel they should have been further out of sight before Ireland claimed the lead, lost it and then failed to convert those chances that might have pre-empted an interesting end game.

Joe Schmidt’s charges finished the tournament strongly with comprehensive victories over Italy and a Scotland team that had been competitive throughout the championship.

Five new caps, CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, Stuart McCloskey, Ultan Dillane and Finlay Bealham were given a taste of Test rugby, adding depth to the playing pool and despite not quite hitting the heights performance-wise and getting the rub this season as they did in the last two years from time to time, Ireland weren’t that far away over the five matches.

STATISTICAL ANOMALIES

Ireland led the way in terms of the official Accenture statistics in several categories. They carried more ball than any other team (600), made more clean breaks (40), passed the ball on more occasions (882), made the most tackles (766) and won more rucks (539). In other words they did several things better than other teams.

Does it refute the criticism of Ireland as sterile or conservative in their attacking patterns? In broad brushstrokes, it does. The reason that Ireland lost the games they did was an inability to finish the chances rather than a failure to create opportunities.

They certainly did kick poorly at times and also a little too often, especially having snaffled turnover ball. Ireland weren’t clinical enough in the wider channels. Line breaks were made but there needs to be a higher conversion rate.

Those numbers demonstrate that Ireland had enough possession to win matches but didn’t use it well enough to win the tournament.

DEFENCE

Andy Farrell will make a difference when he comes in as defence coach. He’s unlikely to persevere with Ireland’s habit of having frontrow players defend in the midfield. Stuart Hogg’s try – he ran between Mike Ross and Rory Best – was a superb piece of individual flair and a clever appreciation of who was in the Irish line.

But it was far from the only time that Ireland defended in this manner in both the tournament and that particular match. There is little blame to be attached to Best and Ross when faced with someone of Hogg’s pace and footwork but a system that asks them to defend that channel is going to have glitches.

Using the Scottish match specifically Best and McGrath, McGrath and White and several other permutations of the starting and finishing frontrows were trying to shore up the midfield; collectively they did brilliantly at times but there were occasions when a better decision from a Scottish ball carrier might have yielded a more lucrative dividend.

Rugby is not chess and you can’t always move the pieces where you’d like, especially after multiple phases, but separating the props and inserting a more fleet-footed defender in between might help make Ireland less susceptible against better teams, who will pick up on this defensive shortcoming.

TAKING CHANCES

To turn a sporting cliché around slightly there is only one thing worse than not creating chances and that is not taking those opportunities. Even though it didn’t matter ultimately in terms of the result, the failure to finish against Scotland is disconcerting looking forward.

It’s a combination of decision-making, skill sets and execution. The strike-rate in terms of chances created to chances taken has to go up appreciably from an Irish backs’ perspective.

Jared Payne would be a poster boy for good habits, technique and vision and it’s up to others to come up to that level. More ruthless is the message and that may require a change in personnel.

The one thing Ireland lack a little is top end, sprinter’s pace, something that’s been largely absent since the days of Denis Hickie. Ireland continue to convert centres and fullbacks and put them on the wing and that applies to more than just the senior side. The leading teams globally have that razor-sharp cutting edge. Ireland must find or develop one.

OFFICIATING

The general level of officiating, inclusive of referees, touch judges, television match officials and citing officers needs to improve. It was once again maddeningly inconsistent and in several cases downright poor.

World Rugby needs to have a look at a law here and there and change the emphasis. Swinging a boot through rucks, millimetres from heads and faces with a potentially catastrophic tariff injury wise is a ticking bomb from the elite echelons of the game right down to those that copy their heroes.

In a different context and tone, the ‘heat of the moment’ defence is not one when there are racial overtones and you’re caught on a microphone. It’s not banter either. On a more positive note Australian referee Angus Gardner produced the refereeing performance of the Six Nations: firm, fair and consistent.

GRAND SLAM

England were deserving champions and the bad news for the rest of the countries is that they are likely to get better. Eddie Jones has given them direction on the pitch, they possess plenty of depth in most positions and are benefitting from sorting out their underage structures over the past half a dozen years to produce a steady stream of talent.

ITALY

A cause for concern in terms of the national sides, senior and underage, the results of the two clubs in the Guinness Pro 12, the structure and funding of the game domestically and finishing bottom in the Six Nations for more than a dozen of the 16 years they have been in the tournament. Georgia and Romania will be watching with interest.

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