Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

Trophy raised... Now Ireland must renew their focus

Double delight: Andrew Trimble and Ulster team-mate Chris Henry were among Ireland's stand-out performers in the Six Nations
Double delight: Andrew Trimble and Ulster team-mate Chris Henry were among Ireland's stand-out performers in the Six Nations

So, where to from here? I'll tell you where – back to reality, back to preparing for the next phase of the season for those who battled shoulder to shoulder in Paris when Leinster take on Munster at the Aviva at the end of the month.

Those same Irish 'all for one, one for all' heroes will resume hostilities when the Blues and Reds look to beat the leather out of each other.

That is the way of professional rugby. Job done, next job please.

But given what transpired over the past eight weeks – the agony of Twickenham to the ecstasy of Stade de France, the perfect farewell for the Great One and the hard-earned, richly deserved title of Six Nations champions – it has been some rollercoaster ride for Joe Schmidt, barely six months into the job.

It's easy to suggest now in the midst of all this euphoria that what happened post-2009 will not be allowed to happen again.

And, to be fair to Declan Kidney, the master-strategist behind our last Six Nations success, what he achieved five years ago was even greater than what the equally humble Schmidt and the class of 2014 have now.

The tour to Argentina this summer will, I suspect, be used to bring through new players in a controlled and measured way.

It will not be a Wolfhounds squad, but a mix of old, established players and new blood.

Schmidt will surely rest those in need, or at least deserving, of a break – I am thinking specifically of some of those on Lions duty last summer.

There are plenty of promising players searching for exposure and increased game-time at the highest level.

But back to Saturday's high drama. Where this developing squad will benefit most outside of the title achievement itself is in challenging teams of the quality of the big five – New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, England and France.

No one outside that elite group has made it to any of the seven Webb Ellis Cup finals.

In the past few weeks, we lost a game at Twickenham we could have won (although on the day didn't deserve to) but won a game in Paris (fully deserved) we could have lost.

Such are the small margins at the highest level of the professional game.

Turn the clock back further still to the New Zealand match in November. It is the scalp we want more than any other and we should have put that growing record of embarrassment in the fixture to rest by claiming our first ever victory over All Blacks.

I do feel Schmidt has to trawl further in search of a three-quarter line equipped to challenge the pace, power and panache of the New Zealanders, Australians and, yes, even the South Africans.

I have mixed views on the residency requirements as they stand. I still feel at just three years it represents a passport of convenience to a Test career denied to emigrant players in their native land. A five-year stint seems more appropriate but the IRB requirement is what it is.

Ulster's Jared Payne will soon join Richardt Strauss and Robbie Diack in competing for a place on this Irish team.

Payne is a class player who looks at this distance a near-perfect fit for Brian O'Driscoll.

That would be tough on Darren Cave, Robbie Henshaw, Stuart Olding, Luke Marshall, Fergus McFadden and every other wannabe eyeing up the midfield positions of the dynamic duo of Gordon D'Arcy and O'Driscoll.

D'Arcy has not offered the slightest hint at retirement – and there is no reason why he should. He still has a lot to offer in paving the way for his eventual successor.

We won't miss the beard and the legs might tire, but the strength will stay, trust me.

Both Andrew Trimble and Dave Kearney have surpassed expectations throughout this campaign and again on Saturday they delivered to order.

Trimble was, for me and many others, our stand-out performer, while Kearney continues to do so much right and so little wrong.

That doesn't just happen by chance. It is that innate football brain at work, that ability to decide when to make that 'man-and-ball' call, the type that saw Sebastien Vahaamahina held up at the death in Paris as the Six Nations title was sealed.

Both Trimble and Kearney the younger will be under immediate pressure for their places from a whole host of players.

Think Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls, Simon Zebo, Craig Gilroy and, of course, the versatile McFadden and you've got the drift.

For Schmidt, shifting from 24/7 at Leinster to clearly defined prolonged periods with Ireland has necessitated the biggest learning curve of all. But the man is a fast learner and, thanks to the IRFU's best work in years, he's ours for some time to come.

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