Transition fought out in the trenches

Often, during the overly critical analytical period which follows an unpalatable defeat, morsels of positivity blowing like tumbleweed in a windswept desert emerge from the most unlikely of corners. For a period following Ireland’s gut wrenching Twickenham tumble, they were hard to locate.

Rob Kearney
Acceptance that people will make mistakes is as fundamental as the old maxim that paper won’t refuse ink. If an individual has a faux pas once, forgiveness is usually readily available. Another blip, though, and sentiment can hover between the unfortunate suffering the wrath or being bequeathed with a degree of sympathy.
Ultimately, Jonny Sexton’s calamitous restart will be signposted as the turning point which set England on the high road. Prevailing circumstances may, however, save the fly half from too much of a dressing down. You wouldn’t need to be Einstein to ascertain that his game isn’t in a great place at present.
Whatever his reasons for heading for France, it surely can’t have worked out as would have been envisaged. And, when a player’s confidence is a little battered it tends to be rather obvious. Furthermore, the greater the fall away in the feel good factor, the harder the besieged try and the more drastic their plight becomes.
It would be callously opportunistic, mind you, to pinpoint Sexton’s erroneous kick off as the sole shortcoming. Surely, there would, or at least should, have been an acknowledgment that Joe Schmidt was – initially at least – taking on a transitional operation. Difficult enough as it was, but, unexpectedly losing Sean O’Brien further complicated an already mine filled roadway.
O’Brien is, to my mind, the best in his position in the world. That kind of class isn’t easily replaceable. Especially when large segments of the battle of transition is fought out in the trenches. Yet, apart from brief intrusions by the Kearney brothers and Andrew Trimble, the Irish forward unit commanded the limelight in the wins over Scotland and Wales.
Trouble was, Stuart Lancaster et al were watching. Thus, good as Schmidt’s side undoubtedly were at set scrums, denying them the fluidity previously enjoyed at the breakdown and general loose play created a headache not to that point encountered in the current era.
What that, in turn, meant was that those who should’ve been the fulcrum of the team’s attacking play spent far too much of their time putting in tackles. England’s current bunch are a put-it-up-the-jumper lot, give them the ball and you may not get it back for a while. That changes the outlook, or at least it should.
There’s a degree of difficulty in not feeling the spectre of Warren Gatland looming. In one sense, all the brouhaha surrounding Brian O’Driscoll should’ve faded following Ireland’s comprehensive conquest of Wales. If anything, to some extent, it heightened it, but also brought about a touch of realism. Undoubtedly, what happened at the bottom end of the world was turned into a motivational flame just waiting to be tossed. A realistic appraisal would confirm – you suspect – that the great man has spent more time in this campaign to date on the back foot putting in tackles rather than illuminating occasions with attacking flair.
Which suits neither the individual nor the collective. No, I am not for a second advocating a repeat of the grotesque disservice done unto the centre by Gatland. There may have been a case, though, for restructuring the deposed captain’s game time. It’s commonplace in rugby for a good portion of the team to be replaced around the hour mark. Maybe, just maybe, BOD’s ability to repeatedly summon the superhuman is taken a tad for granted.
Amidst all the understandable despondency which permeates the air after a loss to the English – particularly given the enormity of what rested upon the outcome – it shouldn’t be forgotten that the considerable potential fillip of winning the Championship remains a live possibility.
Indeed, given the way things currently lie in certain places – not to mention Schmidt’s knack of deriving most from those in his charge when it tends to be most timely – and the chances of it happening begin to appear all the more likely. In fact, one view of things might make it seem all too easy.
But things that look too good to be true generally are. Ireland certainly wouldn’t want to drop their guard. Though under Schmidt’s stewardship that’s unlikely to arise. Even though the French national team have been somewhat ramshackle for much of the recent past, they can never be taken for granted. Nor, now, can the Italians who’ve been making incremental progress in recent times.

Still, gut feeling suggests that there are enough factors contriving in Ireland’s favour to deliver what would be a very decent end to the campaign. How fitting that would be, as well.

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