Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Time to keep expectations in check

So far so good for Ireland, but luckily we have a pragmatist at the helm, writes Ryan Cullen…

Ryan Cullen logo

As an Ulster, Liverpool and Ireland fan it wasn’t a bad weekend! Friday night certainly wasn’t a spectacular event by any stretch of the imagination, but a win is a win and puts Ulster into a strong position to secure a play-off spot in the Pro12.

Come half past two on Saturday I was in a pretty buoyant mood. Having seen Liverpool destroy Arsenal I was on a high very few other things in everyday life can match. I switched over to the Rugby and felt my nerves rise, knowing that the next two hours or so would define Ireland’s championship and form the basis of the team’s journey to the next World Cup.

However, the expected highs and lows never arrived. The nerves dissipated within 15 minutes. If truth be told, Ireland’s superiority was a tad deflating on a Saturday afternoon when high drama was expected.

Not that that should be read as a criticism, quite the opposite. The efficient and calculated performance Ireland produced was as good as anything, outside the ABs in the Autumn, Ireland have produced since meeting Australia in the last World Cup.

Many people, particularly in the British media, expected Joe Schmidt’s Ireland team to come out and throw the ball around for 80 minutes. Perhaps they should have a proper look at Schmidt’s Leinster tenure for he is much more the arch-pragmatist than the 1970s throwback some people have been painting him as.

To be sure Leinster played fantastic rugby under Schmidt, as capable of tearing teams apart with flowing back play as any other in Europe. But to suggest they did this every game is naïve at best. The great success of Schmidt’s Leinster reign was his ability to vary the way the team played, to put a gameplan in place that would be effective against the opposition that week.

If that meant suffocating the game to a greater extent then so be it. Winning was the most important objective and after Saturday’s performance it’s very clear he has brought that win at all costs mentality with him into the Ireland job.

Therefore, the lack of nerves for the last hour of the game was a surprising but welcome change. It was plainly obvious Ireland was going to win.

In pretty much every position Ireland was superior. The pack dominated their opponents, with the general set piece return, a few scrums aside, very pleasing. It’s hard to rate individuals given the quality of the collective performance, but it would be unfair not to highlight the contribution of Peter O’Mahony. So much more rounded now than when he first joined the squad, O’Mahony is now one of the best loose forwards in the game and a terrific asset to boot. Put simply, he swept Lion Dan Lydiate aside.

The backline all performed exceptionally too. The kick chasing of Trimble and the two Kearney’s, the solidity of the midfield pair and the terrific box kicking of Murray were all notable. Jonathan Sexton’s performance was the masterclass though. He pulled the Welsh back three apart and gave Ireland the territorial platform to impact the Welsh gameplan. His exceptional tactical kicking alongside his solidity in defence and off the tee all added up to a masterful performance by the Racing Metro man.

Saturday was a day to marvel at the quality of the overall performance though. Everybody in the 23 stood up to be counted and the results were impressive.

That does not mean, though, that a Grand Slam is likely. The consistently high level of performance since the last fixture of the Autumn undoubtedly augurs well but with trips to Twickenham and the Stade de France yet to come, Ireland’s biggest challenges are ahead of them.

Realistically, victory against either England or France would be an excellent return, putting them in with a chance of reclaiming the championship just a year on from the shambles that precipitated Declan Kidney’s departure. To win both is still an unlikely dream at this stage.

Still, whilst this Six Nations is important, consistent long term improvement is paramount. Provided we can identify an upward trend here, any short term trophies would just be very welcome bonuses.

P.S. The loss of Dan Tuohy, both to Ireland and Ulster, is certainly a major one. Tuohy’s form over the past 18 months has been terrific. But anybody who saw the performance of Iain Henderson on Friday night against the Ospreys cannot fail to have been struck (again probably) by his exceptional talent. Although only seeing 40 minutes of action, he was undoubtedly the standout performer on a horrible evening, charging around like a one man wrecking ball. He certainly looks to be in prime form to make a major impact for Ireland and Ulster before the end of the season.

My name is Ryan Cullen and I am a 25 year old Ulster season ticket holder. I was introduced to the game around 15 years ago and have loved it ever since. I have an interest in pretty much all sports though so don’t be surprised to see a few football (Liverpool), Golfing and Racing interests (to name but a few) thrown in from time to time.

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