Italy v Ireland was a bit of a strange match. It didn’t entirely go to plan for Ireland, and probably showed how valuable certain players are by their absence. But they still got the bonus point and won away from home – Italy’s a tough place to go and Ireland will be happy enough to take the win, take the points and get out of there. Even though the team weren’t at their best, it’s still positive. People may have panicked a little bit based on some reactions I’ve read, but a bonus point away from home is not to be sniffed at. There’s no need to press the panic button.
The squad depth is strong, which is why Ireland have been competing at a high level for such a long time now, but I think there’s a lack of game-time in certain positions, with a few new faces in important positions. You can train all you want, but there’s no substitute for playing together in matches – those are the minutes that count, where you build relationships with people.
That’s probably why one or two passes are not going to hand and why some small things are letting them down a bit, as opposed to the squad depth not being at a certain level. All those who’ve come in are more than capable but it’s just a matter of re-familiarising themselves with one another.
Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton
Johnny Sexton needs to just keep playing. He’s going to want to play Ireland back into form – he’ll want to be at the helm steering the team back towards playing good rugby. There’s no better man to do it, and the same goes for Conor Murray.
Conor plays at such a high level all the time that if one pass goes astray it’ll be over-analysed to a certain extent. Everybody is so accustomed to him playing at a world-class level that if something doesn’t go the right way, for whatever reason, people will be quick to highlight it. He just needs to keep doing what he’s doing – he has proven he’s the best and every time he goes onto the pitch he’ll be trying to prove it again.
As a pair, Conor and Johnny are probably a bit frustrated that Ireland haven’t been the clinical side we’re used to seeing, and their frustration maybe shows a touch but I’ve no doubt those two are the best in the world in their positions and they’ll get Ireland moving back in the right direction.
Can Ireland still win it?
There’s definitely a chance for Ireland to win the Six Nations. As we’ve seen in the past, anything can happen in this competition, which is what makes it so special. My money would probably be on Wales – they look dangerous and they’re in a good position. They have a bit of momentum behind them.
But we’ve seen slip-ups in the past and Ireland are going along quietly under the radar. They’re not in the worst position in the world, and will just have to go out and win their next two games, including a big test against France. It’s not over yet, and I think Joe Schmidt will be telling the players exactly that.
Over the next few weeks, from a team perspective they’ll revert to what they know best. They’ll pick the best squad available. It’s a must-win game versus the French, who are coming with a bit of confidence and will be dangerous. In the “rest” window Ireland will be fine-tuning the machine and trying to eradicate the errors we’ve been seeing in their attack and with the handling. They’ll benefit from the rest as well, particularly some of the key players.
Jacob Stockdale is world class. He’s a hell of a finisher – really strong and really fast. He’d be a nice player to play alongside in a back three – as a fullback it’d be great to throw him out a few nice passes just like we used to do with Keith Earls. He’s just one of those players you want to give the ball to and let them go have fun. He’s a great talent and is going really well – I’m happy for him.
I don’t think the players will have read anything into Joe’s decision to move on after the World Cup or to give less than 100% as a result. It would never be like that. Any time you get to play for your country it’s a massive honour – it’s just been a tiny dip in form but we’re just so accustomed to Ireland being so good that people are wondering what’s going on more than they normally would.
It’s not the worst time to go through a dip in form either. The World Cup’s still a while away so they have opportunities to iron out those mistakes and hopefully they’ll do that.