A barnstorming win over England on Saturday saw the Irish rugby team end the Six Nations on a high. BILLY HEALY reflects on a campaign which, while marked by inconsistency, holds out the promise of exciting times ahead…
The Ireland rugby team recently finished up their 2021 Six Nations campaign. As Andy Farrell completes his second season as coach of Ireland – succeeding Joe Schmidt – how much progress has he made with this current team?
After a poor start to the Six Nations back in February, losing 21-16 against Wales at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff (after going ahead) and then losing to France by two points (13-15) at the Aviva in Dublin, Ireland bounced back with wins in Rome against Italy (10-48), in Edinburgh against Scotland (24-27), and against England in Dublin last weekend (32-18).
I must admit that personally I was surprised, as were many Irish fans, when we beat Scotland (by that small margin of three points) and even more surprised when we beat England, especially by such a large points difference. The performance against England came as a total shock to most people. The victories over Italy, Scotland and England were very welcome, coming as they did after those defeats on our opening two match-days. The conclusion that we can draw from this year’s Six Nations is that you just didn’t know what to expect from Ireland. This inconsistency needs to be addressed. I felt we were very unpredictable and in some games we lacked creativity in our plays.
Ahead of this year’s tournament, Farrell brought in former Ireland captain and legend, Paul O’Connell, as forwards coach. An aspect of our game that was massively improved by O’Connell was our lineouts. This part of our game was hugely improved if you compare it to how we performed in the lineouts in the Autumn Internationals. Ireland won 14 of their opponents’ throws into the lineout in this Six Nations, a remarkable 20% of all opposition throws, leaving them well clear of second-best Scotland (on 9). Ireland’s aggressive tactics also led to a further opposition handling error in the lineout. Scotland’s total collapse at the lineout in Murrayfield in round four highlighted Ireland’s ability to cause panic with their aggressive defence, which was enhanced by the quality of O’Connell’s influence. Ireland won 91% of their own scrums over the course of the tournament and were the only team in the competition not to concede a penalty on their own put-in. Ireland still have a huge amount of work to do on their strike plays from this strong scrum platform, however. They were the only team in the Six Nations not to score a single try from a scrum this year.
In our defence we showed signs of weakness – for example, the soft try against Italy, where Sexton got disconnected from Furlong, leaving the prop advancing laterally, and Jordan Larmour missed a tackle. Meanwhile, James Lowe made crucial defensive errors against Scotland, which led to him being dropped for the England game the following week.
Our discipline, I thought, was poor. Peter O’Mahony was handed a three-game ban for his reckless challenge in the opening game v Wales, after just 13 minutes. The experienced flanker charged into Wales’ Tomas Francis with his shoulder. He is the first Ireland player to be sent off in the Six Nations era and only the fifth in our Test history. Bundee Aki was also sent off against England for his challenge on Billy Vunipola. He has received a four-game ban for his actions. Keeping the penalty count below double figures can go a long way towards winning games, denying the opposition chances to kick into your half and attack or simply kick points, but Ireland just slipped above that marker with an average penalty count of 10.4 (across all five games).
Jonathan Sexton was superb from the tee as he was successful with 25 kicks from 26. Personally I think this team has lot of potential in the next few years, so long as we are more consistent, a bit more creative, and the players continue to gel well as a group. If we can do this, we have a good chance of going far under Andy Farrell.
We have quality players such as Lowe, James Ryan, Jacob Stockdale, Robbie Henshaw, Tadhg Beirne, etc., some of whom have more experience than others. Some need to develop their game to unlock their full potential, but overall I feel – especially after this strong finish to the Six Nations – that there is lots of promise in this squad and every prospect of future success.
* TY student Billy Healy is currently on work experience with the Roscommon People