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Irish Rugby: One Direction,Right Direction

ireland

It was a pleasure to be at the Aviva Stadium last Saturday to witness Ireland versus Wales. A major banana skin lay in wait for Joe Schmidt’s rejuvenated side but they stepped over it and did it with some style. There were some huge performances all over the park from the Irish team but as an overall package, they left Wales frustrated and confused. Tactically, Schmidt again got it right. The Welsh were left with no room to run, their big ball carrying backs never got up speed when accepting a pass, they were met with a line of green, each and every time they attempted to make progress. Their frustration eventually boiled over after Paddy Jackson walked through for a late try. The Irish fly-half was followed to the ground and struck with an elbow into his face as he landed, momentum, no, malicious, yes. The follow up handbags and pushing only confirmed the frustration that the Welsh were feeling. If they came to Dublin to fight, they left it too late.

Outplayed and out thought by an Irish side not willing to give any ground, the Welsh must go back to the drawing board and hope that England can stop Irish momentum in two weeks time. If one moment of the early exchanges epitomises the Irish effort that was on display, it was a huge hit on Brian O’Driscoll by Welsh centre Scott Williams, the big screen replay is not one that went down well with the home crowd, as late as a bride at her wedding. The wind was obviously knocked out of the former Irish captain and he received treatment as play continued. The crowd erupted when he got back to his feet, he was shook but glanced forward and offered a wry smile to his assailant. Williams was replaced moments later, a shoulder injury the result of his exchange with O’Driscoll, you don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.

The Irish forwards were on top from the start. Their maul proved to be an effective weapon yet again as they gained yard after yard and eventually after thirty minutes or so, they used it to crash over the Welsh line, Chris Henry, the man to touch it down. It was a nightmare day for Richard Hibbard and his line out mates. It must have been demoralising to look down the line and try to block from his mind the big ball winners on the Irish side. Devon Toner probably had his best day in an Irish shirt but for Hibbard, Toner’s frame must have looked more like eight foot than six foot ten. Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony weren’t doing much for the Welsh hooker’s confidence either. Wales wanted to throw the ball long from the lineout, giving their monstrous backs a platform to run onto and attack with pace. They were however restricted to trying to win the ball at the front, resulting in their backs doing more standing than running. Compliments to John Plumtree, the Irish forwards coach, the Irish lineout play was not only disruptive to the Welsh game plan, it was detrimental. When Hibbard did go long, Toner was up, as elegant as a six foot ten inch, nineteen and a half stone man can be, to rob possession and frustrate further, Welsh forwards and backs.

Man of the match went to Peter O’Mahony and although he had a few competitors for this accolade, he was a head at least, if not shoulders, above anyone else on the field. His part in the maul, his disruption at lineout time and his ability to win fifty, fifty ground ball was majestic to watch. Captain of his club side Munster, O’Mahony is proving to be a born leader and it is only a matter of time before he takes over the role when wearing the green jersey. His passion and desire is unquestionable, he belted out the national anthem with more vigour than any other, maybe not a contender for ‘The Voice’, but certainly one for the ‘heart’. If O’Mahony awoke Sunday morning battered and sore from collisions with the opposition, then surely his back took the brunt of the pain from constant bruising slaps of congratulations every few minutes from his team mate Paul O’Connell. He is an engine in the Irish forward line that they can’t do without. Henry, Toner, O’Connell and Jamie Heaslip were all able assistants but it was O’Mahony that time after time, was the driving force.

Sexton was instrumental at number ten, but for one wayward kick, he made use of his boot to devastating effect. His penalty kicking was flawless and field position seemed to be the order of the day, gaining valuable ground for the Irish forwards to compete in lineouts. The Irish tactic of kicking for position seemed to ruffle the Welsh feathers more than anticipated. Their backs constantly turning and running towards their own goal, frustrating and demoralising to say the least. O’Driscoll was immense in defence, probably the greatest defensive player of all time, putting his body on the line and leading by example. It was one of the highlights of the day to see two of the most talented full backs in the game of rugby compete for high ball. Rob Kearney is an imposing figure when he comes thundering down the middle but Leigh Halfpenny can more than hold his own. Skill and ability are obviously needed but what these two bring to the game is the added attribute of bravery, Kearney maybe the one that edged that battle on Saturday. O’Driscoll’s trusted centre partner returned to his side to play his part, he may look like a man that’s in a queue for a cup of soup but he looked right at home in this midfield pairing. Andrew Trimble and Dave Kearney played their parts, with Trimble winning some great high ball and Kearney always looking for work on the wing. Two home games, two wins, twenty-two and twenty-three point differences. Where to now for Ireland?

Joe Schmidt doesn’t come across as the excitable type. It would go against his nature to lose the run of himself at this stage. He has proven that he takes each game on its own merit, team selection is based on what the opposition has to offer. Their strengths and weaknesses scrutinised to the full, Ireland will not be found wanting when it comes to preparation, Roy Keane would love this man. There is a Triple Crown on offer in two weeks time in Twickenham, Ireland have a decent record there but not in recent years. The English looked better against Scotland but Ireland still beat the Scots by more after patiently waiting to break them down. The English carry big threats but Ireland will know all about them come February 22nd.

Can Ireland win in Twickenham? Of course they can. England have the comfort of home advantage against Ireland and Wales this year and they will finish their campaign in Rome. The Irish game is do or die for their Championship hopes. France must travel to Cardiff the night before Ireland take on the English and so their ambitions of a Grand Slam will be known well before kick off at Twickenham. France were poor against England and still won, they were sluggish against Italy and so what they have to offer this year will be truly tested by Wales. The Championship is set up perfectly, none of the top four will rule themselves out of claiming the title just yet and Ireland have the added bonus of having beaten Wales early. As they have proven over the years, especially last year, Wales are a lot more difficult to beat, later into the competition. England must be still sick over their performance in Paris. They showed a weakness there, they had the French by the scruff of the neck but let them go just at the wrong time. Stuart Lancaster’s decision to replace Danny Care when he felt that the game was won could be a decision that he regrets for a long, long time. Former England captain, Lawrence Dallaglio has also tried to add early fuel to the fire, a silly statement, “I’d also wager a bet that England will pay a lot of attention to Sexton who is so important to Ireland. If they tackle hard and happen to get him off the field, things would be a lot easier.” Maybe the English should be more concerned at protecting Owen Farrell?

And so after two rounds of the Six Nations, only Ireland and France remain with clear rounds so far. England stand in Ireland’s way to claim the Triple Crown and Ireland must look only at this game and no further. A win in Twickenham could set a Slam decider in Paris, no disrespect to the Italians but one feels that the meeting of Italy and Scotland in the next round is the wooden spoon decider. It feels right this year for some reason, maybe it’s Brian O’Driscoll’s impending retirement, maybe it’s the Joe Schmidt factor but this Irish team looks the real deal. Not just because they beat Scotland and Wales, their performance against the All-Blacks was hope for the future in itself, it would be a fitting tribute to that great, great man O’Driscoll if he could end on a high. The trips to London and Paris are agonisingly enticing, at this stage anyway. It’s occasions like last weekend that lift the country as a whole and in the follow up where Welsh scrum half, Mike Phillips and Ireland’s pop star Niall Horan had a bit of a Twitter bust up, we can only look forward to Ireland, going in ‘One Direction’.

Image courtesy of BreakingNews.ie

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