By Tadhg Peavoy
Winning a third Six Nations title on the trot was always going to be a big ask for Ireland. No team had ever done it entering the championship, and as spring begins to emerge for real, the Ireland team is coming to terms with the fact it also failed to do so.
But was it ever really that likely? Away trips to Paris and London, back to back, always had Ireland up against it. And given Ireland’s hugely disappointing Rugby World Cup campaign last autumn, the likelihood was always that Joe Schmidt would use the 2016 campaign as one of growth. With that in mind a top-half finish gave the IRFU ample financial reward to meet their budgetary requirements and also satisfy the demands of a public that crave victories regardless of whether a team is in transition or not.
In that sense, it was job done to a large degree. And it could have been ever better. Ireland should have beaten both Wales and France, they were the better side in both matches and a failure to fire in the opposition 22 cost them. That inability to finish was also evident late on against England when they threated to derail the chariot at Twickenham. Four wins from five would have represented a superb return for a team developing a new style of playing the game under the same management and would have left a very different feeling for the Irish rugby public heading into the summer.
The draw with Wales seemed about as much Ireland’s lack of confidence in their new system as about poor performance in attack. And the loss in France was akin to Ireland’s defeat to Scotland at Murrayfield in 2013, when Ireland did everything right except score the points needed to kill off the tie.
Both of those mistakes were rectified against Scotland in round five when Ireland played with both efficiency and confidence. The stats reveal a lot here: Ireland carried 135 times; made six line breaks; and the same number of offloads.
The Italy match was a cakewalk it must be said, with the Azzurri delivering a shocking performance that brought cries that relegation from the Six Nations needs to be introduced. On the Ireland front it was a successful round four win though. They needed a victory to steady the ship after four games without a win and getting it by scoring nine tries gave Ireland the confidence to go out and play attacking rugby against the Scots the following week.
When breaking down what Ireland gained in this Six Nations, some clear results emerge. The ghost of the World Cup was put to bed with Ireland showing they intend to play a better, more expansive brand of rugby going forward; a brand that would be fitting of a World Cup semi-finalist. Schmidt also managed to develop a group of very promising new players: Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, Kieran Marmion and Stuart McCloskey all got valuable experience. And thirdly Ireland put together a winning sequence to head into the three-Test summer tour of South Africa.
That is where the next focus lies. It’s a huge challenge to go down there and win just a single Test, never mind a series, but that is the challenge that awaits Ireland.
No Ireland side has ever beaten the Boks on their own soil, with the team of 1981 coming closest with a 12-10 defeat at King’s Park, Durban. By contrast things can get pretty bad for Ireland in South Africa, as the team of 1998’s 33-0 drubbing at Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria, best exemplifies.
But this is a great time to play the Boks. They are in relative disarray following the resignation of Heyneke Meyer as head coach and with no new replacement yet appointed, they are vulnerable. If ever there was a time to go down there with a young, developing team with a host of players looking to make a name for themselves, then this is the time. And who better to lead that charge than South African-born SJ Stander looking to prove that the Boks were wrong to let him defect to the northern hemisphere. A fascinating series awaits.