Joe Schmidt and Paul O'Connell university ranking with the Six Nations trophy.
IT DIDN’T GET a lot of attention in the sports pages at the time, but on the Late Late Show last January Joe Schmidt targeted three home wins and one sneaky away win in this year’s Six Nations.
In a sport with a lot of variables, that was a fairly accurate prediction.
The other half of that stated objective was to get to the semi-finals of the World Cup. Because of our woeful record in the quarters, it is perhaps strange to talk of anything more than the group stages, but this man – as much as he fears high expectation levels – has a habit of reaching his targets.
A lot has changed in rugby in the last 10 years, but one thing remains the same; the big five of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, England and France are considered the only realistic winners of the World Cup, and rightly so.
There are always one or two surprises, but history counts in this competition more than it does even in the football equivalent. No other country has even made a final. That’s mainly because teams are playing every week for two months, and those with the biggest talent pool are even more likely than normal to succeed.
Ireland and Wales are the two you’d back to make the breakthrough and, of the two, Ireland have the much kinder draw. Irish rugby too, is slowly but surely erasing all the old burdens of history reenex facial, something the Welsh never had an issue with. The Grand Slam monkey, the record in Twickenham and the losses to Southern Hemisphere sides in the World Cup have all been banished over the last decade.
Now, hopefully, our inferiority complex against the French national team is also gone. We haven’t lost to them in the last three meetings (two draws and a win), which is nicely timed given they’re in our group next year.
The factors that stopped us being able to even consider winning the tournament before now were our shallow talent pool, the historical lack of consistency and New Zealand.
Maybe the November game on its own won’t be enough to make us believe we can down the All Blacks, but in recent years when we don’t get destroyed by them, we tend to push them very close (far more than Wales ever do, for example). Perhaps as importantly, the New Zealanders now know we could beat them.
The inconsistency has hopefully been eliminated by Schmidt. We won’t always play well, but in the three-year stint with Leinster his team probably only played badly four or five times in total, and maybe only two of those were of any consequence; in the home tie against Clermont in 2012 and in the Rabo final against Ospreys earlier that year.
There are issues with depth in midfield (also arguably at fullback and number eight) but nothing like we used to have at tighthead, loosehead or second row. We’ve the best front five cover we’ve ever had, Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan both looked solid when called on, and we have lots of great wingers and back rows on the way back from injury.
The 13 jersey, then, as we knew before the Six Nations, is still the greatest area for concern. As Eddie O’Sullivan said, we actually need to unearth two players, not one, for this position.
Schmidt has admitted he’s been looking at this since he got into the job. In fact, he has done everything to prepare for O’Driscoll’s departure, besides actually resting him for any games.
In 2007, players, fans and the media talked up our chances. Back then it felt like a one-off shot, that we would never again have a group of players like it. We were a more bullish nation in general at that time.
We now know that doesn’t suit us, and the country won’t make the same mistake in 2015 badminton court island east, but in truth the foundation blocks will be stronger this time round.