As the dust settles on Round 4 of the 2018 NatWest Six Nations which has seen Ireland crowned as this year’s champions with a game to spare, it’s becoming more obvious and evident to just how far Ireland are ahead of their European rivals.
In the past, supporters and the media alike, have ran away with themselves with regards to the hype surrounding the Irish national team. The 2007 World Cup in France, quarter-final exits in both the 2011 and 2015 World Cups and even a disappointing Six Nations showing last year which saw Ireland fall to two defeats to Scotland and Wales are a stark and painful reminder to how quickly aspirations and confidence can be derailed.
It’s important to take, as much as possible, an unbiased and autonomous view on how Ireland have performed since they lost to Wales at the Principality Stadium last year to really get an understanding of where this team currently stands and where they could potentially end up. They have gone unbeaten, winning 11 consecutive Test matches, a feat never matched by an Irish team before.
They have been hit by injuries to key players, in key positions, in this championship and have shown no signs of a drop in performance – Sean O’Brien has played no part in the tournament, Josh van der Flier was ruled out after sustaining a knee injury in the opening win against France in Paris, Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson were ruled out of the Wales game, Robbie Henshaw only lasted to the Italy game and his replacement Chris Farrell was ruled out for the season in the next game against Wales.
With all these changes, Ireland have beaten Wales by 10 points, Scotland by 20 points and Italy by 37 points. The only game which was within a score was France and that, of course, was won by that late drop-goal from Johnny Sexton, the significance of which I will outline a little bit later.
In the four games so far, Ireland have averaged 66% possession – 62% against Scotland, 69% against Wales, 63% against Italy and 68% against France. What does this tell us?
Well, statistics can often be misleading but it is clear that Ireland have played each and every game on their own terms.
They like to have the ball and their game plan revolves around moving the opposition around the pitch, varying the point of attack to inevitably tire the opposition out which will increase the likelihood of scoring points, either through opposition indiscipline or poor defending.
Then what about territory? Joe Schmidt’s side have averaged 68% territory – 63% against Scotland, 75% against Wales, 65% against Italy and 68% against France. This tells us that Ireland are playing in the right areas of the pitch which will lead to more scoring chances.
So Ireland are holding on to the ball for longer and they are doing so in the opposition’s half. This cannot be overlooked or underappreciated. The effort, the mental strength and the discipline to post such numbers is remarkable and it’s a testament to the players and the coaching staff that they have done this consistently throughout the competition so far.
None of this would be possible if Ireland did not excel at the breakdown and kudos must be given to Ireland’s back-row and the whole team, in fact, for having such a high work-ethic and appetite for securing ball on the deck. Dan Leavy has almost single-handedly led the assault on this front with his dogged, no-nonsense displays at the breakdown and his teammates have certainly followed suit.
The perfect example of this breakdown work and the overall composure in which Ireland play the game is best exemplified by the 41 phases which led to Sexton’s drop goal against France. Ireland were in a position which they shouldn’t have been in, they were on the cusp of losing a game they completely dominated. However, they showed patience, togetherness and accurate implementation of their systems to work their way up the pitch to give Sexton that opportunity – and he duly obliged.
This is in stark contrast to last minutes of England’s loss to France in Paris. England were handed not one, but two opportunities to get that much-needed try in the final seconds of the game thanks to Lionel Beauxis’ inexplicable failed clearance. Yet there was no structure, no leadership and above all, no patience to their play.
Ireland, of course, are not the finished article, which is why I say they have not left second or third gear. The lineout setpiece came under serious pressure against Scotland like it did in Murrayfield last year and for all the possession and territory, Ireland should probably be exiting the ‘Red Zone’ with more points.
The defence has been a concern on occasions, too. The narrow, quick line speed defence of Andy Farrell has shown weakness as the Irish players begin to tire but these issues are fixable and they have not cost Ireland, yet.
What will be of the utmost priority this week is to get the players in the correct frame of mind to become just the third Irish team to win a Grand Slam.
Winning a Grand Slam, against England and in Twickenham – well, there should be no shortage of motivation.