Six Nations: ‘Ireland is on the right track but remains chasing the pack’

The half-joke that went round after Ireland’s autumn purge was uttered with a nervous laugh and a touch of genuine fear.

“They’re going to screw things up and win a Grand Slam next year, aren’t they?”

Ireland used to peak too soon; found short term success that was not sustainable.

This is not the harbinger of a desperate attempt to claim that Ireland somehow dodged a bullet by not winning a Grand Slam.

They would rather be in the place of France, and now their task is to close the large but not insurmountable gap between them and Les Bleus.

During the Six Nations, Ireland proved to be exactly what the final results say: the second best team in the northern hemisphere.

Their campaign was not a continuation of a bombastic, high-profile victory over New Zealand, but a functional and generally satisfactory eight-week block of work that should give them a good opportunity to move forward.

After the victory over Scotland, Johnny Sexton and Andy Farrell opined that there is still a lot to be done from the current squad and the way is still far from the goal.

You may object that those behind the walls will always say this, but they would have said so.

Earlier this week, Sexton recalled how the team was received when things went badly in the middle of last year’s Six Nations tournament, and how he was as convinced then as he is now that they were on the right track.

In five games, Ireland have proven they can win and ultimately do so convincingly, even when far from their peak form.

Against Scotland, Farrell’s side never looked like they were giving up a game everyone thought was a winner, although if Stuart Hogg had passed to Sam Johnson from close range rather than giving Hugo Keenan the chance to make a brilliant tackle, the picture might have changed.

The ball didn’t always land in the hands, their set pieces were mostly secure but not infallible, and yet they created enough pressure and moments to get the desired result comfortably.

It was less comfortable against England, but the events at Twickenham in the penultimate week of the Championship were similar in that they bolstered Ireland’s ability to overcome disadvantages and achieve a five-point victory.

Ireland finished second in the Six Nations table, four points behind champions France.

Moreover, this is not an unambiguously positive moment. Having won four out of five games, how many times could you really say that Ireland has created rugby that suggests they are capable of operating at the same level as France?

The opening trades against Wales and England looked good, as did the resurgence early in the second half in Paris. In all cases, however, the smooth and at times unstoppable rugby did not run its course.

All of Ireland’s victories were achieved on a platform built not on attack but on stingy defense, which was the biggest success of their campaign.

Paul O’Connell’s blockbuster return to the lineup ahead of last year’s tournament saw Simon Easterby move into the defensive coaching role, where the former back row oversaw the implementation of a system that seeks to strangle the opposition by requiring offense to be used up. more power than protection.

Ireland conceded just four tries in the entire tournament. Two of them were against France, who missed out on second place with seven.

Admittedly, the numbers are aided by a double-playing team that has one or, in the case of Italy, two players sent off early in the match, but Ireland’s defensive efforts have long been identified by Farrell as the key to long-term success, and they have created a system that works. at a high level.

What was remarkable in Sexton and Farrell’s last post-match press conference at the tournament was their willingness to discuss their team’s progress in the context of next year’s World Cup.

For a long time they have opposed the notion that international rugby follows a four-year cycle that is almost entirely focused on arriving at the World Cup in the best possible shape.

Jamison-Gibson Park and Josh van der Flier embrace after defeating Scotland
Ireland’s starting line-up has remained relatively stable over the past year.

With the exception of last month’s Italy and two summer games in which most of his senior players either rested or played for the Lions, Farrell usually picked the strongest team for every game.

It was about winning every test match they’ve managed to win in 12 of their last 13 matches.

A three-match summer tour of New Zealand will test the feel-good factor that still surrounds Ireland to the breaking point; a winning record can turn into a losing streak very quickly if they are a bit behind.

The offensive inaccuracies they sometimes got away with in the Six Nations will no longer be forgiven.

It’s a challenge now for Ireland, who have proven themselves to be an utterly formidable team.

However, they are not the kind of team to beat.

They remain in pursuit, although closer to the front than a year ago.

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