The 2016 Six Nations has been a huge disappointment for Ireland, however there could yet still be hope of salvaging something out of the campaign.
With just a solitary point to their name after three rounds, the mood around Irish rugby has become a little sullen, although expectations had been tempered as a result of the huge number of key players missing either through injury or retirement. Although many fans may have expected more from a side that claimed successive Six Nations titles under Joe Schmidt, fans have been largely realistic in their assessment of the tournament so far.
The biggest criticism in fact hasn’t been about the results, but has instead focussed on the playing selections and the resultant game plan. Many had expected Schmidt’s side to kick on after their humiliating quarter final defeat to the impressive Pumas at last years World Cup, but if anything the side look to have regressed this year. Gone is the precision play that has characterised Schmidt’s tenure, whilst there appears to have been little ambition to play with width.
It became glaringly apparent at the World Cup that Ireland, and in fact all Northern Hemisphere sides were desperately in need of finding a way to play a more expansive game. The fact the semi finals were populated solely by teams from the Southern Hemisphere should have gone someway to proving that the defence first approach in the Six nations no longer works on the international stage. Unfortunately, no lessons appear to have been learnt as the 2016 Six Nations has seen teams revert back to conservative game plans.
Ireland are by no means the only side guilty of this, but given the foundations laid in place during Schmidt’s tenure so far, they seemed ideally placed to build on this and open up their attacking game. Unfortunately, by continuing with their structured game plan without the likes of Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien they have looked shaky at best. The problem being that Schmidt has shown little inclination to try something different unless forced to by injuries to key personnel as he sought to claim a third title in succession.
Now that the chances of Six Nations glory have been extinguished, Ireland are actually presented with a unique opportunity in which to try something different without the expectant pressure that comes with the Six Nations. Fans have thus far shown understanding to their sides poor performances knowing that the talent pool isn’t deep enough to cover the monumental number of injuries to key players in the pack. Now is therefore the perfect opportunity for Ireland to try something different with little consequence.
There were signs of life against England as debutants Stuart McCloskey and Josh van der Flier added something to the side. The young centre McCloskey in particular looks like he could be a key addition to the side, especially as he allows Robbie Henshaw to step into the 13 shirt where he looks much better suited. This resulted in signs of Ireland attempting to run the ball, even from deep, and often with some success as both McCloskey and van der Flier where within a last ditch challenge of scoring tries.
Now nobody will be expecting Ireland to suddenly turn it around over the final two rounds of Six Nations action, but it’s clear that many fans will feel much happier at the end of the Championship if they see some signs of progress. It is therefore vital that Schmidt continues to select players like McCloskey, whilst also giving his more experienced players the freedom in which to play to their full potential.
Although we’re unlikely to see too much change in playing style over the next two games, what Schmidt does have is the unique opportunity to put in place the foundations for a more expansive game plan that can be properly harnessed when his side tour South Africa this summer. At this stage, Ireland will likely have many of their current injured players back in the squad allowing them to bring back their disciplined defence which can evolve under new coach Andy Farrell, whilst adding a more expansive element to their attacking game plan.
Ireland also have the opportunity now to bring through more young talent who can follow in the steps of players like McCloskey and van der Flier and begin putting some pressure on the more established names who are perhaps under performing at the moment. This will help build strength in depth in the squad and ensure that should another injury crisis hit, the team are better prepared to cope with it.
Whatever happens now, Schmidt would be incredibly naive not to make the most of the opportunity that has presented itself. Whilst it would be a shame if they finish near the bottom of the table in this year’s Six Nations, I’m sure many fans would forgive them if they can see that the side are at least attempting to make progress ahead of this summer’s tour.