HOW APPROPRIATE THAT the winning act in Ireland’s victorious Six Nations campaign was a turnover by Chris Henry and Devin Toner — previously unheralded guys who were given an opportunity by Joe Schmidt and swam at this level.
Henry epitomises the new Ireland, where players sacrifice all for the team. Ireland won this championship because they were the best team. The Irish collective was built on the commitment to excellence of the new coaching ticket, and every player in the squad bought into it entirely.
It is becoming hackneyed to talk of Ireland’s ‘unsung heroes’ – how many times do you get sung before you can’t be unsung any more? — and this usually refers to the consistent excellence of the likes of Toner, Henry, Dave Kearney and Andrew Trimble. They are the contingent who Schmidt brought into the first team from the fringes of the squad, often ahead of more championed alternatives, and generated much heat for doing so. Let’s look at them.
Source: James Crombie/INPHO
Devin Toner has found himself the target of derision and doubt many times in his career. Despite accumulating 100+ Leinster caps, his elevation to the XV was perceived to be Leinster-centrism from Joe Schmidt. Yet he was the surprise package of the November series and he looked of international standard. In recent times, he has improved year-on-year and this is no different. Yet, the perception was (and is) that if Donnacha Ryan and Mike McCarthy were fully fit, Toner would be nowhere near the XV. However, he ends as one of Ireland’s players of the series. He has been a key man in adding grunt to a light pack, and will be hard to shift.
Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
Chris Henry has been soldiering away at Ulster and one of the most influential players at HEC level for a few years now. Yet he is 29 and plays in a position where we are stacked. But Schmidt saw something he liked (at Leinster, where he devised his HEC2012 final gameplan around nullifying Henry’s influence) and he was in. He was the workhorse of the back row trio, tackled himself to a standstill (we are too lazy to add up, but we expect him to be Ireland’s number one tackler over the series). It’s easy to say he will make way for Sean O’Brien and Stephen Ferris if and when they are back, but he has been one of Ireland’s players of the series, for his consistency, and was especially effective in the away games.
Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO
Dave Kearney and, especially, Andrew Trimble: perceived as fifth and sixth best wingers at the start of the season (at best) – even now, most people would pick a fully fit Tommy Bowe over both, but they’ve done little wrong, and Trimble was Ireland’s best player in their win in Paris. Sure, Simon Zebo is more electric, no doubt about it, but read the below from Trimble in November, when he was outside the circle (H/T the Mole) – does this describe Zebo? What about Luke Fitzgerald, Keith Earls or Bowe? Hard to know, but Trimble, after 50 caps, looks here to stay:
I’m more conscious now of the type of winger that Joe is looking for. He’s looking for someone who is accurate, who is physically dominant, who knows their role inside out and performs a lot of small areas of the game very, very well … He demands so much from his players. Joe isn’t overly concerned about a winger that breaks a gain-line and scores tries from halfway. He looks for a winger who does the simple stuff very well, presents the ball at ruck time accurately all the time, accuracy in kick-chase and reception. Every little thing. He has to do everything to make the team tick.”
Unnoticeable from 12 months ago
This is the new Ireland — the players are selected on their ability to execute the coach’s game-plan — and the team is paramount. No Ireland player was as explosive or as individually influential as Danny Care, Mike Brown or Joe Launchbury, but it isn’t those guys who are champions. Ireland had few noticeable weaknesses, unlike the other championship contenders. England struggled any time their backup scrum-half was on the pitch, and would surely have won the Grand Slam had hand-flapping Lee ‘Rock Lobster’ Dickson not been introduced in Paris, and their 10-12 axis managed to create the grand total of one try in five games for two flying wingers. Wales had a weak collection of half-backs and an inflexible gameplan, and France a court jester of a coach, poor backups and a generally unfit pack.
Casting your mind back to how low Ireland had sunk this time 12 months ago is illuminating — beaten up in Rome, with a coach long since past his sell-by date and with a distinctly un-fortress-like fortress. The new ticket has brought a unified direction and purpose, a commitment to being the best, confidence, and a newly-loved team with an atmospheric home ground. Miracle worker? Well, it’s amazing what some strong leadership and a new direction will do; Ireland are a team that mirror their coach’s personality on the field.
Think about who was Ireland’s player of the championship, and there’s no obvious choice. Every player, from 1-23, contributed something. After two games, we’d have picked O’Mahony, but he had quiet games in Twickers and Le Stade and missed Italy. Henry? Certainly up there for consistency. Trimble? As important as anyone. O’Connell? Manic, and another brilliant leader, but quiet in Twickenham. Sexton? Got the Bernhardt Langers with his kicks in Paris but scored four tries and at crucial moments. BOD? Rolled back the years.
Source: James Crombie/INPHO
But Jamie Heaslip would be our choice because he was among the top performers in all five games and had a huge all-round impact and influence (seeWorkrate by Henry, C.) – but we wouldn’t argue with any of the above. If anyone out there still doesn’t see what Healsip’s value to the team is, well, they’re not worth listening to.
That consistency and collective drive was the most impressive turnaround. Ireland have a quite magnificent coach, a squad of intelligent and skillful young men, and some big guns to come back. There is no reason why, with the RWC15 draw we have, we shouldn’t be putting ourselves up there with England as the main threat to New Zealand and the Boks next autumn.
And, while Ireland didn’t win a Grand Slam, there is a certain satisfaction to be derived from winning the championship on points difference. Ireland have finished level on points with the champions in the recent past, but always came out second best on this metric. Not this time, though, and the real differentiator between Ireland’s and England’s points differential was the thorough beating we handed out to Wales, which everyone can feel happy about. And the key reason England didn’t thrash Wales as well was consistently giving away kickable penalties to keep Wales in the game - something we happily avoided all tournament. George Hook and others may lament the rules, but Ireland weren’t top of the log by accident.