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Mixed emotions as Schmidt forced to settle for second

By Ruaidhri O’Connor

Before a ball was kicked, Joe Schmidt gave himself a target of a top-two finish and their place at the head of the chasing pack looked just about right on Saturday night.

However, when the warm glow of their display against England has worn off, the squad of players will reflect on this campaign as a missed opportunity.

They made the Six Nations champi­ons look pretty ordinary while denying them a second successive Grand Slam and although their place in the world's top four had already been assured as a result of Wales' dramatic defeat in Paris, they reminded everyone why they deserve to be there anyway, with a display of huge intensity that left Eddie Jones' men searching for answers.

Ireland insisted they took little joy from spoiling the party and if they want to exist in the upper echelons of the game, then they'll need to be true to their word.

Since the last World Cup, Schmidt's side have been on something of a roller coaster of results, but what has emerged is a capacity to survive and, at times, thrive in the furnace of Test rugby. Since they were well beaten by England at Twickenham last February, they have participated in a series of high-quality, ultra-intense contests.

They are difficult to beat, but too frequently teams have found a way and the coach's next trick is to match that intensity with a more creative and effective attacking game plan that can unlock the tightest defences.

On Saturday, they scored one try to England's none and, as with most of these games, there were moments where they were close to another.

Whether it's a referee's call or a top-class piece of defensive work, teams have found a way to stop them and there is a concern that the level of physicality required to beat the Six Nations champions is hard to replicate on a weekly basis during tournament rugby.

Schmidt learned a lot about the men in his squad. Kieran Marmion finally got a start and proved that he can cope at this level; Peter O'Mahony came into the team at the 11th hour and his performance was such that it should never take another late injury to get him in again.

It must have been an uncomfortable 80 minutes for Jamie Heaslip, who watched from the dugout. Ireland didn't miss their vice-captain.

Given the unreliability of Ireland's information about injuries, it was no surprise that conspiracy theories started circling about how this was a Schmidt ploy to throw the English off their game.

Certainly, the decision to bench Devin Toner made more sense if O'Mahony was down to start, given the Corkman's lineout prowess, and the word from the camp is that the trio of O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien and CJ Stander did pack down at some stage in the week.

The coach was indignant about the suggestion that he had indulged in what Jack Charlton famously called "silly buggers" with the late change, describing it as a "flawed theory". Jones had a twinkle in his eye when he suggested that a leprechaun had taken Heaslip out in the warm-up.

Whatever happened, it worked out brilliantly for Schmidt, who could count himself blessed that fate con­trived to get O'Mahony on to the pitch.

Although he spent much of the first half with his hands on his knees, gasping for air, Jared Payne also brought a hint of a new dimension to Ireland's attacking play and it was noticeable that the brilliant Johnny Sexton took far less on himself.

Rob Kearney had a fine season, but the Kiwi's passing range and lines of running when returning the ball caused England a world of problems.

And then there was the bench. The established figures, Toner and Cian Healy, made their mark, but it was the five young men with just 10 caps between them who really shone.

Luke McGrath's control and kicking, Andrew Conway's debut enthusiasm and Dan Leavy's appetite for contact all helped Ireland through a tricky end-game against an English side who believed they would be able to wrest control back.

As they transition into the second phase of their World Cup cycle when they go to Japan this summer, one of Schmidt's key goals will be to ingrain the type of winning mentality that has marked the Australian's time with England.

Having ended their world record run and done the same to the All Blacks in Chicago, it is time for Ireland to go and dominate for a while.

Schmidt is determined to deepen his squad and will use the opportunity of the summer tour to continue that process.

There is more talent to come and it was inter­esting to note last year's U-20 captain James Ryan was in with the squad at full-time, while the Ireland coach is a big fan of this year's star man Jordan Larmour.

Then there is the impending arrival of Bundee Aki, Tom McCartney, Wie­hahn Herbst and Tyler Bleyendaal, who qualify on residency before next year's Six Nations to help grow the options available.

Belfast Telegraph

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