What’s Next, After the Slam?

As the immediate emotions die down and the dust settles on Ireland’s great Six Nations Grand Slam, it becomes possible – nay essential – too take a more nuanced and balanced view of what transpired, and more importantly, on what must come next.

Firstly, we have to acknowledge the flaws in our own performances, if we are to perform even better in the future. We performed brilliantly against Wales and blew them away for about 30 minutes. After that we were so-so and almost let the get back into the game.

Our finest performance came against France, whom we beat convincingly on the scoreboard and even more so on the pitch. But we also have to acknowledge that Lowe’s try shouldn’t have been allowed, and we had home advantage against a team rarely at their best away from home.

Against Italy, our performance was perhaps best forgotten. A reversion to the sort of mixed bag performances that used to characterise our play. It’s main merit was that it allowed us t give game time to half a dozen players who would not normally be in the first XV and who needed the experience.

Against Scotland we produced our most resilient and adaptive performance. Scotland are a good side, started well, and deserved their early 6-0 lead. Ireland adapted well to some early injuries, came back to take a 10-6 half time lead, and ultimately destroyed the Scottish challenge despite playing Cian Healy at hooker and having Van Der Flier throw in at line outs.

If I were Gregor Townsend, I would be furious. They had Ireland for the taking and couldn’t take advantage. The following week they were lucky to beat Italy at home. An importer marker has been put down for out meeting at the World Cup in September. Ireland do not have to be t their best to eat them.

The match against England was the most intriguing at all. England came to bully and disrupt. They were entirely negative in their mindset and not above the odd late tackle and dangerous challenge. You can argue the merits of their red card against Steward, but overall their disciplinary record matches their mindset. Ireland received no cards in the entire tournament.

So, the overall assessment of Ireland’s performances has to be very positive: A great disciplinary record, resourceful under pressure, adaptive to injury and player disruptions, and a game plan which always found a way. Sexton’s placekicking has been exemplary throughout.

Some players came of age at test level. Baird showed he could add real dog in the tight to his undoubted athleticism in the loose. He becomes a great option to have on the bench covering both lock and flank. (I could even see him deputising for Van Der Flier against a giant side like the Springboks).

Almost every established player enhanced their reputation: Sheehan, Porter, Ryan, Doris, O’Mahony, Van Der Flier, Sexton, Ringrose, Lowe, Hansen and Keenan all making claims to be world class. Of the fringe players, McCloskey, O’Brien, Byrne, Bealham, O’Toole, Herring, and Conan all strengthened their claims for inclusion in the World Cup squad.

Injuries prevented Furlong, Henshaw, Beirne, Henderson, Kelleher, and Gibson Park from contributing to their full potential, but all showed they could do the needful when called upon to do so. Nobody’s reputation went downhill, although Furlong will benefit from more match practice.

It is a mark of this coaching team that no one is set up to fail: all are given the maximum opportunity to impress. Ireland have lost their fear of failure, and perhaps even more importantly, their fear of success. Heightened expectations do not faze them, nor the outrageous swings of fortune when decisions do not favour them, or circumstances conspire against them.

The game plan continues to evolve with better lines of running, better exploration of space (particularly down the blind side) and judicious kicking when required. Not for Ireland the “hoof and hope” tactic adopted by England or the poor exit strategies adopted by Italy.

France remain a real threat. At their best – as against England – they are still the team to beat, particularly on their home patch in the world Cup. Perhaps Ireland are the only team that could beat them. A fully fired up South Africa at a world cup will also represent a huge challenge, and the All Blacks will always be a huge challenge.

The pity of it is that only two of these great teams – Ireland, France, South Africa and New Zealand – can survive the quarter finals of the World Cup, while patently mediocre teams will cruise into the Semi-finals on the other side of draw with hardly a tough match to sap their resources.

Indeed, it is quite possible that none of the best five teams in the World Cup will win, having eliminated and exhausted each other, and having lost some of their best players through injury in the process. Strength in depth will become even more important, as the winning team might have to do so without half a dozen of their best players.

I therefore enclose below the current depth chart in Ireland for each position. Players in Bold are likely to make the initial 33 man World cup squad, while quite a few of those ranked just below may be called upon as the tournament progresses.

1. Andrew Porter, Cian Healy, Dave Kilcoyne, Michael Milne*, Ed Byrne

2. Dan Sheehan, Ronan Kelleher, Rob Herring, Tom Stewart*

3. Tadhg Furlong, Finlay Bealham, Tom O’Toole, Roman Salanoa*

4. Tadgh Beirne, Iain Henderson, Kieran Treadwell

5. James Ryan, Ryan Baird, Joe McCarthy, Ross Molony*

6. Peter O’Mahony, Cian Prendergast

7. Josh van der Flier, Nick Timoney, Will Connors, Scott Penny*

8. Caelan Doris, Jack Conan, Gavin Coombes

9. Jamison Gibson-Park, Conor Murray, Craig Casey, Caolin Blade, Nathan Doak*

10. Johnny Sexton (Capt.) Ross Byrne, Jack Crowley, Joey Carbery

11. James Lowe, Jacob Stockdale, Keith Earls, Shane Daly

12. Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Stuart McCloskey, Stewart Moore*

13. Garry Ringrose, Jamie Osborne*, Ciaran Frawley*, James Hume, Antoine Frisch

14. Mack Hansen, Jordan Larmour, Robert Baloucoune, Andrew Conway

15. Hugo Keenan, Jimmy O’Brien, Michael Lowry, Mike Haley

As can be seen from the above, cutting the squad down to the World Cup maximum of 33 results in some forced choices and outstanding players being left behind. Of course, there is still time for the pecking order to change as the season progresses and some first choice players are likely to be injured giving others their chance.

The selection above also reveals some structural weaknesses in the squad: For instance, no specialist cover for Van Der Flier at 7 and only three specialist wings. Will Connors used to be above Van Der Flier in the pecking order, and could regain his place in the squad when fully match fit, but then who do you leave out?

We could travel with only 5 specialist Props in the squad, but that would be incredibly harsh on Tom O’Toole who has been making great strides this season. Cian Healy can cover tighthead, and even hooker, but all of the tight heads listed are specialist 3’s. We are quite weak in some positions if the first choices are injured. Michael Milne, Tom Stewart, and Roman Salanoa have no international experience.

Ulster will feel hard done by with Jacob Stockdale, Robert Baloucoune, Michael Lowry, James Hume, Nathan Doak, Nick Timoney, and Kieran Treadwell likely to miss the initial cut, but Joey Carbery would be the unluckiest of all, having never let Ireland down and closed out some tough matches.

Overall, one has to conclude that Irish rugby is in rude health having consolidated and reinforced our no. 1 ranking in the world. Notwithstanding that we must remain a long shot for the World Cup, with a cruel draw unlikely to leave us unscathed even if we do break our quarterfinal glass ceiling.

There will always be upsets and shocks, poor refereeing decisions, and downright inequities. In sport, nothing can be taken for granted. But isn’t it exciting that we are in with a shout, competing with the best, and respected by all?

Some may think that Ireland isn’t even a country. What they don’t realise is that a country is define by its people, and quite often, by its sporting heroes. Politicians and political pundits may think they rule the roost and that state structures are all. In the long sweep of history, they can matter very little at all. What matters is what is in the hearts and minds of people, and this Irish rugby team has captured the loyalty and affection of the vast majority on this island.

It feels good to be justifiably regarded as best in the world. If only we could extend that feeling to other fields of human endeavour!

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