The world of professional sport is a notoriously fickle one, and nowhere is this more apparent in rugby than in the treatment of Six Nations coaches.
After two consecutive Six nations titles some Irish fans have begun to question Joe Schmidt’s ability to take the team forward in light of the team’s opening two results of a draw and a loss in 2016.
There has been little mention of the fact that Wales followed by France away is easily the most treacherous opening fixtures (not to mention the most physically taxing), let alone that Ireland have been decimated by injuries to seven starters.
With a trip to an eager England side up next the journey gets no easier, but with the burden of retaining their crown lifted, expect a fully focused Ireland side at Twickenham.
All great coaches have had to guide their teams through darker days (even Graham Henry and Sir Clive Woodward) and when Ireland come through this difficult patch, the world better beware.
Ireland's injury-enforced selection delays "unsettling and frustrating" ahead of France clash, says Joe Schmidt: https://t.co/y1CZ2AvrHt— Nick Purewal (@NickPurewal) February 11, 2016
Wales and Scotland prove that northern flair exists
After a competitive but dour opening round of Six Nations, a 10 minute period during Wales’s victory over Scotland shone like a beacon in the dark for enterprising rugby.
Dan Biggar‘s cute chip was the catalyst for the new-found ingenuity. The kick was tapped back by Jaime Roberts for scum-half Gareth Davies to streak in with an electric burst of pace.
However the Scots hit back immediately with Scotland playmaker Finn Russell’s dink over the Welsh defence being collected superbly by Tommy Seymour to dot down.
With fine individual scores from George North and Duncan Taylor in the second-half, the southern hemisphere’s opposition analysts finally had something to report to their coaches ahead of the summer tours.
Now is the time for Warren Gatland and Vern Cotter to encourage more of the same attacking endevour and to avoid going into their shells against the bully boy packs of England and France as pace will always win the day in contests with the Rugby Championship teams.
Wasps laying the foundations for a new dynasty
What a week it was for the Wasps! A 64-23 mauling at Premiership pacesetters Saracens followed by the capture of Danny Cipriani’s signature on a bumper deal.
The more bitter Saracens fans will point to the fact that the Londoners were missing some eight players through Six Nations duty, but they were absolutely outplayed in every facet of the game and Wasps were very good value for their win.
With a more consistent paying standard coupled to new found financial clout, the Coventry-based side’s are now able to attract the top names in world rugby once more to their home, as proven by the recapture of Cipriani.
Of course, the fact that the talented playmaker’s best rugby days were spent in the black and yellow shirt will have played a major role in securing his services, but it means that Wasps will likely be able to persuade an even larger marquee signing to join him alongside Elliot Daly and Charles Piutau in a potent backline division.
Wasps will always look back on their European success at the turn of the century as a missed opportunity to build a dynasty, but with finances and results getting better by the month, it looks like Wasps may be great again.
Al Ain gain first win for a year in West Asia Championship
Al Ain recorded a 33-23 win in Muscat, a first win in five outings in the competition.
Even more of a morale booster for the Garden City club will be the fact that it is a maiden win in 15s rugby for Amblers this term, having lost their opening seven fixtures of the UAE Premiership too.
The paltry return this campaign after a year in which the team had gone the previous campaign with a 100% win record highlights the gulf in difference between the region’s top clubs (which have semi-professional players in some cases) and the conference teams where the sport is purely a social past time.
That said, Al Ain coach Andrew Rouvi believes Al Ain’s first win of campaign will insert a massive injection of confidence into the club ahead of a daunting game against the league’s best side.
“We’ve got Exiles up next and obviously we would love to win but if we can get a bonus point that will be something,” he said.
For this week’s extra time video highlight we travel to the dark side (rugby league), but it is well worth the trip. It is often said that while union players have a more well-rounded skill set and tactical nous, league players enjoy superior handling ability. After seeing this finish from winger David Mead, it is difficult to dispute the latter. Simply breathtaking.
A draw and a defeat from their opening two Six Nations fixtures was not the start Ireland had in mind in the pursuit of what would be a record-breaking third consecutive championship.
While being held by Wales was not the worst result for Joe Schmidt’s side, defeat in Paris to an unfancied France side in a match they dominated for long periods has raised major question marks.
With the poor results coming off the back of a disappointing Rugby World Cup, our #360debate today is: Are Joe Schmidt’s Ireland a team in decline?
It’s Saturday March, 15 2014. Ireland have just beaten France by two points at the Stade de France and clinched the Six Nations title to cap a year in which they lost to the mighty All Blacks by two points four months earlier.
Fast-forward two years and Joe Schmidt’s men have lost the same fixture by two points, just four months after a 23-point mauling at the hands of Argentina in the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals.
These results, if nothing else, prove Ireland are a team heading south and murmurings of Schmidt’s potential as the next New Zealand coach have been replaced by angry voices even, somewhat unfairly, calling for his removal as coach.
In 2014, Ireland were considered world beaters and the team that would finally bridge the gap between the two hemispheres. If they played New Zealand now, it would be a massacre.
Ireland were by no means dealt the most favourable hand in terms of a Six Nations schedule in 2016 but a draw at home to Wales followed by a loss to an aimless France side is a particularly paltry return.
Ireland still have plenty of ability to create scoring opportunities (which is impressive given the total implosion of their pack in Paris), but seem incapable of rediscovering the clinical edge that once marked them out.
Where they were once able to call upon a moment of genius from Brian O’Driscoll to break the line in midfield, there seems to be a lack of spark.
While the most fickle fans calling for Schmidt’s removal are slightly premature, given the lengthy injury list, one has to ask where the replacements are for players such as O’Driscoll, Sexton and Paul O’Connell, and why they are not standing up now?
Life gets no easier with England at Twickenham up next. With the hosts energised by new blood and the desire to put on a show at home it is difficult to see Ireland arresting their downward spiral any time soon.
The defeat to France showed much of Ireland’s lack of creativity and flair, but by no means can it be argued that Joe Schmidt’s men are in decline, especially with the number of key players currently ruled out through injury.
After winning back-to-back Six Nations titles and reaching the quarterfinals of the World Cup the team is still full of promise, but it’s been difficult to highlight this class without the availability of so many experienced names.
Every team goes through stages of the season with key men absent and it’s just unfortunate that midway through a Six Nations, Ireland find themselves without the experience and leadership of 10 injured players – seven who would be potential starters.
To go to Paris and lose by just one point without several star names isn’t as bad as some have suggested since Saturday’s post-mortem.
Perhaps the biggest loss is in the forwards where five of Ireland’s starting eight are sidelined. The significant loss of Cian Healy, Mike Ross and Iain Henderson was reflected through the front five being bullied in the final 20 minutes.
The scrum creaked and the French pack duly upped the tempo and took advantage of some poor decision making to pave the way for Maxime Medard’s late try.
Without trying to single out individuals, the loss of Peter O’Mahony’s leadership is momentous and his work-rate and commitment to the tackle is worth a score a game alone.
Of course, it would be hard to determine what this team would be like without the injuries, but for the remaining three games Schmidt must try to instill belief and win at all costs.
Scotland and Italy should be two facile victories, but in order to initiate any sort of optimism, they need a strong showing in London against England.
The bid for a historic third title has derailed but finishing off this campaign on a high with the available squad is primary.
Joe Schmidt has admitted Ireland have only a “very, very outside chance” of now retaining their Six Nations title. Ireland lost out 10-9 in France on Saturday, Maxime Medard’s late try denying the visitors in Paris.
Head coach Schmidt has now conceded that Ireland will struggle to secure an unprecedented third-consecutive Six Nations crown, with defeat to France following the 16-16 draw with Wales.
Schmidt battled to insist that Ireland will focus simply on preparing to take on England at Twickenham on Saturday, February 27, knowing full well however just how tough such single-mindedness will be.
“There’s no hiding our disappointment that while mathematically there’s an outside chance, realistically we know that it is a very, very outside chance,” said Schmidt. “To be honest, we are a week-to-week team. The titles that we have won in the last two years have never been discussion points.
“The next game has been the discussion point. For us it is about building towards Twickenham and putting together the best performance that we can. The first thing is to get the medical assessment and put together the players that we have that are fit and ready to go.”
France’s risky strategy of sending potent scrummagers Rabah Slimani and Eddy Ben Arous into action off the bench proved successful, Medard’s try the fruit of four scrums on Ireland’s 5m line.
Ireland boss Schmidt branded the refereeing of the second-half set-piece “incredibly frustrating” however, claiming France were gaining an illegal edge by driving at outlawed angles.
Ireland will hope Cian Healy and Mike Ross are ready for England, after returning from injury for Leinster on Friday. Healy is back after knee surgery while Ross has beaten a hamstring complaint.
Dave Kearney is likely to miss the rest of the tournament with damage to the AC joint in his shoulder, while Sean O’Brien has a new hamstring problem and Mike McCarthy concussion.