The Triple Crown and Grand Slam may be gone for another year, but the RBS 6 Nations title is still in Ireland’s sights as they lead the table after the opening three rounds.
The 2014 Championship is set for a fascinating run-in with four teams currently locked level on four points each. Ireland are out in front courtesy of a +42 points difference, with England (+21) in second and Wales (+6) and France (+1) behind them.
The target for Ireland will be to get back to winning ways at home to Italy on Saturday week, boosting their scoring rate in the process and maintaining a defence which has conceded only one try in three Six Nations outings.
Of course, that very try proved decisive in Saturday’s 13-10 loss to England at Twickenham as scrum half Danny Care finished off a Mike Brown-inspired attack in the 56th minute.
Asked about Ireland’s title prospects as they look to those final games against Italy and France, head coach Joe Schmidt said: “I guess it might become a carrot if we can take care of Italy.
“We have to try to build piece by piece, especially when you trip up in a game. We’ve taken two quite good steps and to trip on this one means that you don’t want to then suddenly try to take a giant leap because you’re not in as strong a position.
“We’ve just got to make sure that the next step is firmly planted, secure and we’ll work towards that over the next two weeks.”
The Twickenham arm wrestle was a breathless whirl from the start, with Andrew Trimble and Conor Murray doing just enough to deny England winger Jonny May an early try.
Given the English pressure, Ireland would have been very pleased to be only 3-0 in arrears at half-time. Scoring opportunities were rare, but a Jonathan Sexton cross-field kick to Trimble worked well and the scrum laid solid foundations.
The visitors gained the early momentum in the second half, a sweetly-delivered set move seeing Jamie Heaslip send Rob Kearney scampering away on a angled run that led to the full-back’s third try in four Tests.
Sexton followed up with the conversion and a subsequent penalty in the 50th minute, as Ireland seemingly turned the screw at 10-3 ahead.
Captain Paul O’Connell said afterwards: “After 50 minutes I was happy with what we were doing. We were really exerting ourselves, but we didn’t maintain it.
“When we had that period of pressure after half-time, we needed maintain it and to keep our foot on the throttle – we didn’t too that. It was probably our own inaccuracy that did that.”
England roared back with a 10-point burst of their own, Owen Farrell landing his second penalty before the Harlequins trio of Chris Robshaw, Brown and Care combined for the match-winning seven-pointer.
Midfield veterans Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy tried to inspire an Irish response on the scoreboard, but some sterling defence from England kept them out – a promising O’Connell-led maul was halted in sight of the try-line and the advancing Dave Kearney was brought down on the left wing by a Joe Launchbury tap tackle.
Schmidt conceded that Mike Brown’s ‘running in broken-field was probably the difference between the two teams’, while admitting that ‘a couple of things didn’t quite come off for Johnny (Sexton) with the boot’.
“I felt we were too loose with the ball, some of the resourcing of the ruck – people weren’t as square in the ruck as they have been in our last two games. There was a lot of angled entry,” he highlighted.
“We’ve got to learn to cope with that because it’s very hard to stay on the ball if you’re being lifted off it. I think that’s one of the things that we’ve got to be able to try to cope with, to make sure we can (a) protect our own ball and (b) put pressure on our opponents.”
The Irish coach also felt that some of the marginal calls from referee Craig Joubert went England’s way, adding: “Yeah, there’s some disappointment there obviously, I think anybody could see the hand in the scrum. That would have given us the three points, a draw and I think we would have been good for that.
“At the same time, we have got to be good enough then to deliver the killer blow. We’re not going to get it handed to us and England did well to keep us out.”
Despite the narrow defeat, Ireland can still take a number of positives forward into the rest of the Championship. There were 100% returns in the scrums and lineouts, another debutant on board in Jordi Murphy and there was no let-up in effort throughout a bruising and fast-paced 80 minutes.
“You cannot come to Twickenham and roll your sleeves up like we did and not feel proud of the people who put 100% into it. The players feel frustrated, they feel disappointed,” added Schmidt.
“The least I can do is feel proud of the effort and the endeavour and the blood, sweat and tears that they put in to it.
“They’ll also understand that we’ll try to help ourselves along and have a pretty forensic look at it and be fairly brutal with each other about what we need to get right, and at the same time we’ll be pretty positive about that effort and endeavour and about a number of things that we did pretty well.”