27 February 2016

By Tadhg Peavoy

Defeat hurts. It always hurts. In life, in sport, in rugby: always. And the Irish men will have been pained in the visitors’ dressing room at Twickenham after their 21-10 loss, but this game showed so much more than an 11-point defeat to England.

Ireland gave a performance of such optimism that the defeat almost comes as an afterthought. For the first 40 minutes they were rocking, hammered back in contact by England, who had the bit between their teeth as they went hammer and tongs at their foe from across the Irish Sea. A 6-3 lead at the break was very generous to Ireland and it really should have been a 17-point margin. The Irish defence was the difference. Totally under the cosh they stood firm in the face of repeated forward skirmishes and choice spreads of the ball wide to the England danger men.

That Ireland had the tenacity to hold out any tries was massively impressive and gave them huge self-belief going into the second period of a game that could well have been already lost.

The bigger worry in the first 40 was the flatness and lack of incision in attack from Ireland. But galvanised at the break Ireland fought back with exhilaration. Stuart McCloskey finally got his mits on the ball and gave the sort of direct running that Ireland have been lacking for so long in the backline. Henshaw thrived off that, and Sexton followed suit with breaks of his own to carve England open. The latter two were so unlucky when combining not to see Henshaw going over in the corner after Sexton’s superb line break.

In the pack, Josh van der Flier gave the performance asked of him: he was all over the park in defence and had a ferocious hunger to contribute. Likewise Ultan Dillane’s cameo off the bench oozed commitment and his link-up with Van der Flier deserved to be rewarded with a try.

Yes, the defence went to pieces for England’s two tries and that was a worry. The absence of a defence coach since Les Kiss’ departure to Ulster, and prior to Andy Farrell’s arrival with Ireland, was so evident. That will need to be closely monitored and adjusted in the closing two weeks of the championship.

But the impetus for growth and expansion of the playing squad was there for all to see.

There are others knocking on the door. Sean Cronin needs more game time at hooker – with Rory Best as captain – that will come off the bench. Likewise, Kieran Marmion and Paddy Jackson have done enough to get into more match day squads.

Out wide Connacht’s Matt Healy should be brought to South Africa this summer and should start at least one Test match.

It takes a full four years to build a squad for a Rugby World Cup and the job has thankfully begun in year one this time around. Joe Schmidt’s contract runs until 2017 and he may be working in the Land of the Long White Cloud by 2019, but the job to build has commenced with him and he could yet oversee the whole four-year phase.

The IRFU have always placed maximum emphasis on the Six Nations, but a shift to allow the coaching unit the freedom to experiment in Europe’s premier rugby tournament will reap rewards in the land of the Rising Sun come World Cup time.

With the championship now gone for Ireland there is more opportunity to experiment against Italy and Scotland. Those games can be won and also used to blood talent and that should now be the priority.