Make Joe's a triple: Look out, England ... Schmidt's new Ireland can achieve crowning glory
Published 10/02/2014 | 08:30
Make no mistake; Joe Schmidt's Ireland are on the march and growing in status. Evidently their supporters have begun to believe, too, for on Saturday afternoon the Aviva Stadium was bouncing as of old as the delighted home fans savoured their side's dismantling of Warren Gatland's Welsh.
Each of the eight starters who made way for a replacement was treated to a rousing ovation. At full-time the crescendo of noise was deafening. And although we heard the strains of Cwm Rhondda and Max Boyce's Hymns and Arias from the travelling Welsh hordes in the early stages of an absorbing match, long before the final whistle that had given way to The Fields of Athenry and Ireland, Ireland' as the hosts were roared home to a second successive victory.
Ireland's progress under Schmidt is undeniable. In November, in the last of their three Guinness Series Tests, they were within 30 seconds of beating New Zealand, the world champions and undoubtedly the best side on the planet.
They followed that up by putting paid to Scotland in their first match of 2014 RBS 6 Nations. And on Saturday, by way of encore, they saw off Wales, winners of that competition in each of the past two seasons.
The score-sheet underlines Ireland's superiority on the day – two converted tries and four penalties to a single Welsh penalty.
Each of those tries – the first by Ulster's Chris Henry in the 31st minute, the second by his provincial colleague Paddy Jackson in the 80th – came from the excellent Irish line-out and rolling maul, a tactic Wales simply could not counter.
Rory Best threw as well as ever he has, with Devin Toner, captain Paul O'Connell and man of the match Peter O'Mahony the beneficiaries of his accuracy. The hooker hit his targets with 15 of his 16 throws and on the one occasion Wales pinched possession, Ireland immediately hunted them down and forced an error, resulting in a scrum which they duly won.
A 94% success rate on Ireland's line-out throws confirms the spot-on co-ordination of that set-piece and the training-ground work which has gone into achieving that level of efficiency.
There were no weak links in the home team – every one of the match-day 23 contributed. Alas, Dan Tuohy's role was limited to cameo status, for having deputised for O'Connell in the 55th minute the Ulster lock had the misfortune to break his right forearm just under 10 minutes later.
Ireland's line speed was another huge factor in this win, as was their discipline. Wales and Lions goal-kicking maestro Leigh Halfpenny got one pot at the posts in the 80 minutes. He nailed it, of course, but what was quite remarkable was that his 55th minute goal was only the fourth penalty Ireland had conceded and the first within kicking distance.
Ireland have conceded just nine points in their first two matches of the series, a remarkable statistic that underlines how disciplined they have been thus far.
Schmidt said: "It's certainly one we talked about and part of it is that we're trying to stay really disciplined around the tackle. We're trying to make the tackle first of all and that's one of the things that keeps people from scoring, but also to keep really disciplined around the tackle."
His tactics having de-railed the Welsh so effectively, he was able to reveal: "Coming into the game, we talked about just trying to make sure we could turn them around and we set ourselves up tactically different to last week in two very short trainings. It was nice to see the execution of that."
Highlighting Ireland's tactical kicking, Schmidt (pictured) said: "Jonny Sexton might have missed a few kicks out of his hand, but he also put in some superb kicks down into the right hand corner in the first-half that allowed us put a bit of pressure on.
"I thought the back field was superb, receiving the kicks and then creating pressure back on them. There was one before half-time that Andrew Trimble juggled and then Rob Kearney put down the awkward pass, but apart from that I thought we fielded the ball from the back well and that didn't give them a release valve to take the pressure off them.
"That was probably the most satisfying thing."
Having now beaten Scotland and Wales, victory over England at Twickenham on February 22 would give Ireland a Triple Crown in Schmidt's first season. Asked if that will be the biggest test he has faced in his coaching career, the Kiwi was coy in his response.
"It's the next game so it's the biggest challenge. That's the way it is," he said.
"It's huge, and I think part of what we have to manage now is player anxiety because they're going to be made well aware, going for a break for a couple of days before we go to Clonmel, of the expectation and the public expectation.
"We're going to have to be bang-on, on the day, and there are a lot of variables that will make that difficult to do.
"That's our challenge."