Adrian O’Farrell is back and he wants to define the season:
There are certain things I like about the Welsh including their style of rugby, but it does come with this remarkable arrogance when things are going their way. I have a very irritating Welsh friend who just keeps pointing to the record (‘I loves it, I do’) when discussion of this season’s Six Nations comes up. He even spent half the Wales v Italy match talking about how good-looking the Welsh backline is.
After highlighting the statistical improbability of this and mentioning the sad legacy within the squad of Gavin Henson’s penchant for sun beds, I had to admit through gritted teeth that Wales have been the best team in the championship thus far. But only because that’s what the results say.
However, Ireland were once again very good against Scotland and there remains the counter-argument that had we not been accursed with ‘that’ Wayne Barnes decision we would have been in the box seat for the Championship. As things stand, a win in Ireland’s favourite hunting ground will ensure a second-place finish whilst further cementing Barnes’ position in Ireland’s hall of infamy.
As he prepares for the St. Patrick’s Day encounter, Declan Kidney can reflect on a thoroughly professional win against Scotland. Another four tries attests to Ireland’s ability to take their chances. Ireland have now scored 13 tries in their four matches to date, compared to Wales’ nine. This ability to take their chances is what forms the basis of my feeling that Ireland will finish the season in second position ahead of their hosts on Saturday.
As with the performance against Italy, we had to wait a bit before Ireland pulled away against Scotland, though the two first halves were utterly different. In Ireland’s first glimpse of what the post O’Driscoll/O’Connell era may look like, Ireland didn’t lack for leadership as Best coolly stepped up to the captaincy plate. Any doubts must have left him after he bravely elected to go for the corner after just 15 minutes and with the score at 6-0 to Scotland. Ireland had hardly been in the game up to that point so the obvious course of action was to take three and get the scoreboard moving.
However, they had a move they’d been working on and they pulled it off beautifully; O’Mahony timing his release perfectly after Ireland had noted that Scotland move their blindside wing over to the 10 channel defending that position. Clever.
The real bonus for Ireland came in the performances of the newish boys – O’Mahony and Donncha Ryan. The former is indeed very unlucky to lose out this weekend to Europe’s Player of the Year, which says a lot. O’Mahony is a very good all-round footballer who adapted well to openside. He also seems to have the ability to take to increasingly higher levels of the game with remarkable ease. Remember, he was Man of the Match in his first ever Heineken Cup match against Northampton just last November. I’d say he’s a decent outside bet for the Lions, particularly given his versatility.
His Munster mate Ryan is on fire as well. Pinching lineouts against Scotland is something nobody else has managed this season and he put them under pressure all day. However, he was aggressive around the pitch as well and the scrum didn’t seem to suffer for his presence instead of O’Connell.
At halfback, we weren’t concerned about Reddan and he demonstrated why, though he will personally rue the missed tackle on the giant Richie Gray and it may cost him at some point down the track. However, he once again showed his opportunism on the other side of the ball and again provided quick service.
Kearney continues to dominate the air and is attacking with great purpose, keeping his legs pumping when in contact. He nearly got the reward for one scintillating counter attack when he fed Earls. I didn’t think Earls needed to dink it ahead on first viewing but having reviewed it, Evans would have had him on the angle. However, I do think he was interfered with and Max Evans’ subsequent yellow was deserved. Between that incident and Tommy Bowe’s disallowed ‘try’ Ireland may have scored six, but that would have been a bit harsh on the Scots. Their beef on the day would be that referee Pollock should have shown yellow to Ireland for repeated infringing at the breakdown and I have some sympathy with that. Ultimately, it wouldn’t have changed the game substantially I don’t think. However, Ireland cannot afford to concede 14 penalties against England this Saturday.
For his part, Earls continues to look good at 13. With both Trimble and Bowe in good try scoring form the backline looks more threatening than it did a year ago. McFadden again showed in his cameo that he should be the replacement for a still contributing D’Arcy when it comes time.
England will enter this clash with a new-found belief after ‘upsetting the apple tart’ (as Bertie might say) against France. The return of Manu Tuilagi makes them a considerably greater threat, and not just for the way in which he took his try (rerun the tape and you will understand why Julien Dupuy can never play for France again – it’s hard to compete with a fridge stuck to your back).
England’s win remarkably pushes them up to fourth place in the World Rankings, ahead of Wales, while Ireland remain in seventh. That’s the kind of thing that gives these rankings a bad name, though Stuart Lancaster will surely use them to his advantage when talking to the RFU about his status.
And in fairness to him, he has reinvigorated the Saxon hordes by his bold selections, going outside the usual names and faces with the likes of Barritt, Farrell, Morgan, Botha, Strettle, Dickson and even Hodgson. He got huge reward from going with Ben Morgan on Sunday, when the Number Eight showed why Gloucester offered the Scarlets £100,000 to release him from his contract with them. Expect Ireland to keep a closer eye on him than the French did.
England were quite awful in their first two matches against both Scotland and Italy and could well have lost both. An improved performance against Wales was sustained against France so they do have some momentum and confidence built up. They have been opportunistic rather than genuinely creative in this tournament and I’m not sure they can sustain that.
Through the course of this tournament however, Ireland have learned a very valuable lesson – that we are not the same team when we don’t push up hard in defence. I believe that we would have beaten Wales with a different defensive approach and furthermore, that we will have too much experience and nous against England, provided we can continue to take our chances with the same alacrity we have shown to date.
Ireland to win and put the seal on a tournament that has shown us making genuine progress. I loves it, I do.