The Irish were world-beaters in the autumn, but by the end of next week, they might be the fourth-best rugby team in Europe.
Six Nations losses to Scotland, in the competition’s opening match, and Wales, in a ferocious encounter in Cardiff on Friday, have taken some of the gloss off a stunning end to last year, when Ireland gained wins over all three of the southern hemisphere’s superpowers.
The highlight, of course, was beating New Zealand for the first time, a 40-29 victory that ended the All Blacks’ tier-one world record of 18 straight Test wins.
So it was strange to hear Ireland coach Joe Schmidt speak so positively after the 22-9 loss to Wales about the chance his side have to “finish in the top half of the Six Nations.”
“To finish in top half of a championship where you have France playing well, Scotland playing well, Wales bouncing back and England obviously playing really well, it’s so competitive,” Schmidt said. “Right from the start, when we first chatted about the championship about seven weeks ago, I felt it was going to be the most competitive championship” ever.
Still, it feels like Ireland have taken a step back from those heady days of last autumn, which earned them the tag of favorites heading into the Six Nations.
After a 27-22 loss away to Scotland, which Ireland’s players partly attributed to early-game lethargy after arriving at Murrayfield late because of traffic, they thrashed Italy 63-10 and battled past France 19-9.
A win against Wales would have set up a potential title decider against England in Dublin in the final match of the competition, but there was no flow and an element of predictability to Ireland’s attacking game in the face of an excellent Wales defense.
Ireland failed to score a try for only the second time in the past 12 months and they had only seven line breaks all match.
When they did cross the line and get the ball down, following a rolling maul, the try was disallowed because center Robbie Henshaw added his ballast to the drive illegally by joining at the last second in front of the ball carrier.
Ireland might have been about to score without Henshaw’s arrival and a conversion would have put them ahead with 10 minutes remaining.
Ireland captain Rory Best spoke of the “silly little mental errors” that cost the team: a second-half knock-on by prop Tadhg Furlong with the line in sight, a botched catch-and-drive from a lineout just when Wales was hanging on, that late driving maul that Henshaw needlessly interfered with.
“I think the difference now is that when we talked about consistency four or five years ago, it was really good performance, really poor performance, really good performance, really poor performance. Whereas we have got a reasonable level of consistency now,” Best said. “We just make ... a couple of silly unforced errors, which at this level are massive.”
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