THE preacher stood on his pulpit and told his flock to ‘keep the faith’.
But will they? Having watched him deliver two Six Nations titles, none of the congregation have any reason to stop believing in Joe’s gospel just yet. Yes, results have headed south since October – three wins and a draw from the last four games is evidence of a decline – yet context is also needed.
Paul O’Connell has gone, a year after Brian O’Driscoll bid us farewell. Sean O’Brien and Iain Henderson are injured. So, for that matter, are Peter O’Mahony, Tommy Bowe, Luke Fitzgerald, Dave Kearney, Mike McCarthy, Jared Payne and Marty Moore. That’s two Lions captains, two starting Lions wingers, two of the best flankers in the world, and the best young lock on the planet. All gone.
And their absence is being felt – not necessarily in the first 50 minutes of games – more so in the final quarters of games, when the 13-0, 9-3 and 10-6 leads that Ireland built up against Wales, England and France have been flipped.
“Ireland have depth,” said Eddie O’Sullivan, the former Irish coach, “but when you have so many men injured, that depth gets really tested and the absentee list has become apparent at the business end of their three matches in this year’s championship. That’s when you could do with O’Brien, Henderson, O’Mahony and the rest.”
And it is when you could do with the men who have been catapulted into the team due to injury – Josh Van der Flier, Stuart McCloskey, CJ Stander – being fired in from the bench. Bear in mind that such a policy has worked for Wales, France and England.
The Welsh, whose bench consisted of Ken Owens, Gethin Jenkins, Tom Francis, Bradley Davies Dan Lydiate, Lloyd Williams, Rhys Priestland and Alex Cuthbert when they came to Dublin, turned that game around when Warren Gatland replaced quality with quality in the second-half of that drawn encounter in Ireland’s opening game.
Six days later, the introduction of props Rabah Slimani and Eddy Ben Arous five minutes into the second-half of Ireland’s game in Paris, re-addressed the balance of power in the scrum, a department Ireland had dominated until legs tired and Slimani and Ben Arous began to bully. Onto Twickenham. Danny Care, Jack Clifford and England’s try-saving hero, Elliott Daly, ran on. Ireland ran out of steam.
And yet the picture is not completely bleak. McCarthy’s concussion injury forced Schmidt to select Ultan Dillane – who back in September was his seventh choice lock. After Saturday – when he electrified Twickenham – he has jumped up the pecking order and the prospect of a Henderson-Dillane duet being aired on the South African tour is beginning to excite.
Similarly, Van der Flier’s emergence doesn’t just put pressure on O’Brien, it offers Joe Schmidt some relief, given how the Carlow-man has played only two-and-a-quarter games in the Six Nations under his regime. Consider too how good Stander has been and how good McCloskey and Garry Ringrose, the uncapped Leinster centre, may become.
“As Joe Schmidt is discovering with Ireland, developing depth in the squad is more often than not through necessity rather than design,” O’Sullivan said. “But to his credit he has chosen wisely with the new caps he has introduced and they are certain to feature again in the future with Ireland, even after the walking wounded return to full health.”
It’s the health of this Irish team which will be concerning Schmidt most. The patient is clearly sick rather than terminal and while an injection of youth will have a remedial effect, it isn’t the only available cure.
Renowned for his analytical mindset and attention to detail, Schmidt will be poring over the videos of Ireland’s game at Twickenham and coming to the conclusion that if he can improve the players already at his disposal, then there will be less need for radical change.
And one man desperately in need of a few hours at the Schmidt grind school is Devin Toner, the giant second row, whose lineout performance against England was poor. “That was where we really came unstuck last Saturday,” O’Sullivan said, “and it surprised me because it had seemed that Devin had managed a seamless transition from Paul O’Connell in his lineout calling.
Against Wales and France we were rock solid in this area. But last Saturday the lineout creaked badly at crucial times in the game. Did England figure out our system? Did Devin make some bad calls? Or was Rory Best’s GPS off? It is difficult to say, but the bottom line it is now an area of concern for the first time in a while.”
They aren’t the only areas for concern. Three games have yielded just two tries – although Van der Flier was cruelly denied a try on his debut by the TMO on Saturday – while the absence of Irish defenders in that four-minute spell when England ran in their two tries on Saturday is an additional source of worry. And yet with so much talent breaking through and so many key players waiting to come back, there is enough reason to be cheerful as fearful. “When there’s a lot of injuries and guys unavailable, it sort of forces you through a little transition,” Rob Kearney said afterwards.
“In saying that it’s important that we don’t use that as an excuse either, we have to be very rational about it. The guys who do take the field have to make sure they’re doing a job. Our performance last Saturday was a lot better than the ones over the last couple of weeks. We had opportunities. If we had taken them, it would have been very different.”
If, however, is a big word. Which was why Schmidt asked us to ‘keep the faith’. We will. For now.