Six Nations talking points: Faithful Joe Schmidt caught on his heels
Why were there empty seats when the Irish team needed their fans most on Saturday?
Slow to change
Quite rightly, Joe Schmidt retained faith in the Ireland side which beat the All Blacks for Saturday’s Six Nations opener against England, with Conor Murray and Robbie Henshaw the only new faces. But from the outset, the heroes of last November struggled to get a foothold in the game.
England’s intensity and linespeed meant Ireland’s Plan A didn’t work - their big ball carriers were bouncing backwards, and they were unable to gain territory. Yet despite Ireland being dominated, Schmidt and his team were reluctant to change things.
Sean O’Brien was kept on ice until the 65th minute, Sean Cronin the 68th, Joey Carbery the 73rd and John Cooney the 77th. It was too late. Compare this to Wales on Friday - Warren Gatland changed his halfbacks on 53 minutes, just after Wales had pulled it back to 16-14, having trailed 16-0 at half-time. Dan Biggar’s calming influence was the antithesis of France’s kamikaze finish, and he steered the Welsh over the line. Gatland’s pragmatism paid off, Schmidt was caught on his heels. (Patrick Madden)
It only takes a modest shift in emotional energy to see a turnaround in repeat meetings a week apart, and 10 months on from Ireland’s Grand Slam finale in Twickenham, it was England who brought the heightened levels of desire.
This was evident on the pitch, via the ref link, and on the benches according to people nearby, and was palpable in the stands too. The Irish supporters took exception to Swing Low and drowned it out with boos a few times, but hardly once broke into The Fields themselves.
Unlike the All Blacks game in November, there were vast swathes of empty green when the teams emerged for the anthems. It seems as if only the haka can get an Irish crowd into their seats well before kick-off.
They were relatively subdued and many made for the exits well before the end. Some of the home crowd’s performance didn’t deserve a win any more than the team. (Gerry Thornley)
French acclimatisation necessary
Romain Ntamack has discovered in recent weeks that being a gifted teenager in underage rugby doesn’t necessarily translate to senior level in the same vein, lessons received in the Champions Cup and now the Six Nations Championship.
The lynchpin in France’s Under-20 World Junior Championship win last summer, he demonstrated impressive maturity initially to force his way onto the Toulouse first team, where he became a regular fixture in the Top 14. It was in Europe and specifically the game against Leinster at the RDS, that Ntamack was targeted by the home side and no matter where Toulouse tried to hide him in the defence line, Leinster were able to flush him out. It was the same at the Stade de France on Friday night, where one or two flashes of ability aside, he struggled to cope at inside centre.
There is no doubting his talent but acclimatisation process may take a little longer and that is unlikely to include an unbroken run of caps in the national side. (John O’Sullivan)
Battle for Irish hearts and minds
Joe Schmidt did not look for excuses. He was asked about England’s tactics of slowing down ball with bodies. He was asked about the late tackles on players, Keith Earls twice by Tom Curry and Maro Itoje and Johnny Sexton once by Billy Vunipola.
He was asked to complain about how England went about their business. But he didn’t do it. He knew England did to Ireland what Ireland would have gladly done to them. England were simply better at it. And it worked. End of.
The hurt in his voice was that his team which contest everything everywhere were bullied by brawn and the world was watching. What happened there? Why did they lose those moments? Irish fallibility was laid bare. Now, how to get Irish hearts and minds back to where they respect all but fear none is the most important task for Andy Farrell and Schmidt this week. (Johnny Watterson)
Just like that the collective Irish mindset gets altered. Joe Schmidt’s team can only atone for this heavy beating by winning the championship in Cardiff (if that’s even possible anymore).
That means scoring more points than a Wales side that happily defended the life out of a sloppy, badly coached France in Paris. Consider the brutal road ahead and already those ghosts of 2015 are looming. Dev Toner’s recurring ankle injury threatens to fracture the foundation stone of Ireland’s attack - the lineout - with good news on Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson desperately required before Schmidt is forced to select from the Connacht locking department at Murrayfield and beyond.
Solutions to being dominated by the English pack will not be visible until the World Cup quarter-final, probably against gargantuan South Africans. Saturday was the test to see if Ireland are physically capable of going where they have never been before and they comprehensively failed it. Sobering. (Gavin Cummiskey)