The Return of Ringrose
What is it about the number 13 shirt for Ireland? Against Scotland, the man in the green 13 shirt was exceptional. While there is much sympathy for Messrs Farrell and Henshaw and their injuries, it was hugely encouraging to welcome back Garry Ringrose to test match rugby. The outside centre was close to the form he displayed last season with several line breaks coming from sharp footwork and electric pace.
At Lansdowne Road against Scotland, Ringrose was very impressive and gives Schmidt a different type of attacking threat to the two previous holders of the shirt. Huw Jones, the Scotland outside centre, had been excellent against England and that this was the area in which the visitors would punish Ireland. This threat coupled with the fact Ringrose had a tough debut against the Scots last year, had many fearing the worst. Despite his blatant talent with ball in hand, it was probably in defence where Ringrose showed his real prowess. By marshalling his opposite number into touch in the 67th minute, the young Leinsterman typified his dominance over Jones. It was perhaps telling that this was Ireland’s lowest points total conceded in the championship so far. Combining well with Kearney, Earls and Stockdale, Ringrose commanded the wider channel and will look to do the same next week against England.
Jonah Lomu taught me an awful lot about rugby. His sensational breakout onto the international scene in the World Cup in 1995 is most definitely etched in my mind. It was however, the Playstation computer game bearing his name that I really learnt much of the nuances of the game of rugby*. The most important thing I took from playing my peers throughout my teens was the vital significance on the ruck. If you could not mash the buttons quickly enough and commit men to the breakdown and then vary between leaving the ruck and joining it, you would lose all of your possession. And so, as if written on a stone tablet, I learned very definitively: If you cannot win the ruck, you cannot win the game.
I am sure Joe Schmidt learned this fact in a far more sophisticated (and healthy) manner, by playing and watching actual rugby rather than the hypnotic trance that playing a computer game often becomes. Much of Ireland’s success under Schmidt has been built on how well they ruck. There is a ruthless precision under the Kiwi’s tenure that means the lightning speed of rucks is almost a foregone conclusion. Watch it next time; it is like clockwork. Slow ruck ball is simply unacceptable.
In this clash, it was unusual to see that Scotland managed to get to Ireland in this area. Scottish backrowers Barclay and Watson had been quicker than England two weeks previously and subsequently won the game. In Dublin, this duo did manage to get some joy in this regard. Nowhere near as much as against England but enough to notice, especially when Ireland have been so clinical in this area in the past. Watson’s ability to hold onto the ball when Furlong carried on 10mins was particularly impressive. The Scotland no. 7 managed to hold off Ringrose, Toner and O’Mahoney which will irk them when they review the game during the week.
What makes the game in Twickenham so intriguing, will be the fact that England have been poor at the ruck of late. If they cannot slow Ireland’s rucking down, they will not stop an Irish Grand Slam on St Paddy’s Day. Also keep an eye on who is refereeing the game as their interpretation could well decide whether Ireland complete a clean sweep. Wayne Barnes’ style possibly suited Ireland more so than Scotland which makes the fact that Irish ball was slowed all the more concerning.
*There were plenty of glitches in the game, one of which was the complete absence of knock-ons which regularly led to free-flowing attacking rugby.
Brave New World
For a nation historically so unsure of itself in a sporting sense, we are in new territory with this team. Ireland have depth across the park. Ireland are consistent. Ireland vary their game plan according to the strengths and weaknesses of the team they face. Ireland do not rely on one or two players.** Ireland win matches when they do not have the bounce of the ball, the wind behind them and when they play below their best. Ireland can win even when the lineout and scrum are not operating at 100%. Ireland win championships a week ahead of schedule. Ireland win games even when they concede three tries.
Welcome to the New Age.
So what is the real potential of this team? While securing another championship this weekend – 3 in 5 years ain’t bad – the bar must be pushed higher. If Ireland want to really show their mettle, they have to test themselves in a high stakes environment and beat England at home, reeling from two defeats with some of their players, playing for their international futures. Unfortunate as it is that March 17th will not be a Grand Slam decider, I actually think the game will be harder. Had England squeezed past Scotland and France and papered over the cracks, Ireland could have caught them out. Now they have the red-hot furnace of a full house at Twickenham baying for much, much better from their team than they have seen in recent weeks.
That being said, if Ireland are as good as we think they are, then only a Grand Slam will do.
**I still say a novena for both our half-backs, as good as their immediate replacements are…