Friday 15 February 2019

Now champions have to slam Eddie's England

Coach Schmidt wary of the 'wounded animal'

HAPPY FAMILY: Sean Cronin of Ireland with his sons Cillian and Finn after the Six Nations win over Scotland on Saturday. SPORTSFILE
HAPPY FAMILY: Sean Cronin of Ireland with his sons Cillian and Finn after the Six Nations win over Scotland on Saturday. SPORTSFILE

Finally, it is one game at a time, for the last time. Ireland have secured a third Six Nations title in five years and there are those out there still complaining about the way they have done it.

Those reared on cake have little sympathy for those who came up on bread.

There are those among us who know what it was like to live through at least part of the desert years when there was no outright championship from 1951 to 1974 on to 1982 and from 1985 to the Grand Slam in 2009.

Then, along came Joe Schmidt and the Ireland coach has done a remarkable job of sustaining consistency from his first two championships in 2014 and 2015 through a period of adjustment, maybe even transition.

The Six Nations has been recaptured without men Schmidt would have seen as leaders and difference-makers at the start of the season.

Jamie Heaslip has retired and Sean O'Brien has failed to make it back in time.

Jared Payne's future in the game is uncertain. Simon Zebo's future is overseas.

Rhys Ruddock was in the form of his life before a hamstring tear derailed his drive in December.

Andrew Trimble lost form. Dave Kearney lost his fitness and his place and Paddy Jackson never started the season.

During the Six Nations, Josh van der Flier's knee injury in Paris ended the rest of his season.

The same went for Robbie Henshaw against Italy and for Chris Farrell in a session after a man of the match impact against Wales.

SUPERB SHOW: James Ryan in action for Ireland during the Six Nations match against Scotland at the Aviva Stadium. SPORTSFILE
SUPERB SHOW: James Ryan in action for Ireland during the Six Nations match against Scotland at the Aviva Stadium. SPORTSFILE

The coach was reduced, if that is the right word, to turning to ring-rusty Garry Ringrose to solve Ireland's defensive issues.

It is a measure of Schmidt's influence that the mistakes made are never in selection.

Just as Farrell had done before, Ringrose stepped up and stood-out as the best player in the pitch.

The timidity of his form for Leinster in his initial five-match return, before syndesmosis wiped out seven weeks, was replaced by certainty, decisiveness and class over and above those around him.

The injuries only serves to shine a spotlight on how Schmidt has broadened and deepened the pool of players who can do their job in the international arena.

Now, there is the matter of bringing home a third ever Grand Slam. To do so, Ireland will have to stop England doing what Ireland did 12 months ago.


This will test the sinew and mental fortitude of these players. England have lost back-to-back for the first time in Eddie Jones' reign to slump from super-confident to disconnected.

There was a shambolic nature to what they did against France to lull Ireland into a false sense of security.

Not quite. The idea Ireland will go to London and have it all their own way is bordering on the preposterous.

The appalling vista of losi ng three of five matches in the championship is simply unacceptable for England.

They have come too far, too consistently to roll over now.

"I think they're going to be really dangerous," warned Schmidt.

"The personnel that they have, I've seen them play often enough.

"I actually watched them train with the Lions and they have an exceptional level.

"They have extreme pace, Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph, Jonny May. They have players that have that sort of speed.

"They have great experience in their halves with Danny Care, the amount of caps he's got, and the same with George Ford and Owen Farrell."

For England to ruin Ireland's dream, they will have to stop them dead on the gain line.

The champions have dominated territory and posses sion in all four of their matches.

It is the physical edge to move forward, by inches if necessary, that has provided Ireland with the momentum to build pressure, points and 17 tries.

England know it and will go all out to prevent it.

"Up front, they have real experience," continued Schmidt.

"Across the board, you know how tough that is going to be. They're wounded, but they're far from dead and buried.

"They'll have a real resolve to come back, bounce back and beat us."

Schmidt will not want what went around at the Aviva last year to come around at Twickenham next Saturday.

For that to happen, Ireland will need all the leadership they can get.

Remarkably, second row James Ryan is looking like the future right now.

There is even a temptation to label Ryan, Ireland's top tackler and top carrier against Scotland, as the next Paul O'Connell.

"Look, I'd never weigh someone down with that weighty a label. Having worked with Paul O'Connell, he is exceptional.

"Was James Ryan exceptional? Absolutely. Was he incredibly good against France? I believe he was.

"To top those two counts is an outstanding performance from a player who is a very young man, in the tight forward position.

"It's not like he's come in as a fleet-footed back like a Jordan Larmour or a Jacob Stockdale.

"So you're excited about what he's delivering," said the coach.

Perhaps Ryan is the single most outstanding example of how Ireland - or Leinster - have unearthed a leader around whom Schmidt can plan for the future.

"We're going to keep trying to build that depth," said Schmidt. "I don't mind putting that weight of responsibility on James and saying 'you've got to keep going forward James because there's other guys here,'

"But I certainly wouldn't label him with the world class label of Paul O'Connell. Not just yet."

So he's telling us there's a chance?

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