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RBS 6 Nations: Joe Schmidt will give Ireland best chance of Six Nations crown


Together as one: Ireland will have to show their quality to bounce back

Together as one: Ireland will have to show their quality to bounce back

©INPHO/Billy Stickland

Together as one: Ireland will have to show their quality to bounce back

The difficulty now is where to go from here as phase three of Joe Schmidt's inaugural Six Nations plan kicks into gear.

The options for Schmidt are threefold: 1) having lost, you instigate wholesale change; 2) you ignore any obvious shortcomings and leave well enough alone on the basis that any reselected team owes you; 3) you assess the evidence, factor in the tricky seven-day turnaround between Dublin and Paris and construct two horses for courses teams accordingly to meet the demands of each game.

No prizes for guessing what the most sensible strategy is.

The nucleus of a potentially very good Irish team did not become a bad one on the basis of a three-point defeat in Twickenham on Saturday.

Had we pulled this one out of the fire at the death, we would, of course, have taken it and moved on towards the Grand Slam challenge. But this time, for sure, we are set to learn so much more about ourselves in defeat than in victory.

Stuart Lancaster and Andy Farrell didn't introduce anything we did not expect. England played within their limitations, but did so particularly well. We knew the power of the juggernaut that Ireland would face.

On the clear evidence of England's game in Paris (despite losing) and Edinburgh, we knew we lacked the power (particularly in the absence of Sean O'Brien) to go through them. We knew, too, that we lacked the midfield inventiveness and pace in the outside channels to go around them.

The most obvious option, therefore, was to attempt to go over them by way of the judiciously executed kicking game that served us so well in victory over Wales.

Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton were imperious in tactical appreciation and technical execution against the Welsh, but this time the pressure was unrelenting with the out-half, in particular, forced into a high-risk kicking strategy beyond his ability.

Much like Ronan O'Gara – his new kicking mentor at Racing Metro – Sexton is a perfectionist used to strategising on his own terms, but at Twickenham the English forced the Irish playmaker-in-chief into gambling on an over-the-top aerial game alien to his more conservative normality at this level.

It was a strategy born out of frustration as much as anything else. Unfortunately, it didn't work and in retrospect it handed the psychological initiative to a side growing in confidence in the second half.

Not for a minute am I suggesting that the buck stops with Sexton for Saturday's defeat. The nub of the problem was much closer in and much more primitive than that, but his kicking inaccuracy under mounting second half pressure ensured there was no way out.

Had we broken away for a late winner it would have been an absolute steal. England were significantly the better side.

They won the battle at the breakdown and, by extension, the war of attrition that was always going to be crucial to the result. If anyone still doubts the validity of the fallout at the tackle, then look no further than the impact of Peter O'Mahony. The key performer in our two home wins, he was largely inconsequential here.

And again, O'Mahony's inability to impose himself in the battle for possession wasn't an individual failing, but a direct result of the collective pressure being applied.

This is a young and developing English squad, but one clearly lacking in experience. How could it be otherwise? Given time under an equally talented and enthusiastic young coach in Lancaster, they are already looking like a force.

By contrast, we are a hugely experienced side in terms of caps and years (eight of Saturday's starting team are 30 or over this year).

But there is no need for panic. Schmidt is more aware than anyone of the obvious limitations within his squad. The challenge now – and it is a big one – is in how he handles his ageing resources for the final two games, which are just seven days apart.

There will be changes against Italy, but one aspect to his selection that concerns me is the make-up of his bench.

Not so much in the back-up forwards, where the coaches selections look difficult to improve on, but in the replacement half-backs and utility three-quarter.

The game is now about the match-day 23 and making maximum impact off the bench.

I feel the up-tempo qualities of Eoin Reddan would be more relevant in a mid-match crisis than those of his fellow Leinster scrum-half Isaac Boss.

But the biggest failing is at out-half. I would have no problem whatsoever with Paddy Jackson starting (based on current form) should anything untoward happen to Sexton.

The issue I have is off the bench, where Ian Madigan is capable of igniting a game with his first touch of the ball. It is not any particular arrogant trait in Madigan's make-up, just his style of play and for that reason he would be on my bench every time.

A case, too, could be made for Simon Zebo ahead of Fergus McFadden on the same criterion of making an instant impact; although I feel McFadden is under-rated.

Brian O'Driscoll should not be selected for the Italian job on the basis of sentiment, his last home game for Ireland.

Despite all the negative and ill-informed comments coming their way since Saturday, O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy are still the best centres available.

The challenge for Schmidt, Les Kiss and John Plumtree is in player management for the next three weeks, factoring injuries to O'Mahony (hamstring) and O'Driscoll (calf).

The critical message from Twickenham, despite losing, is that there is no need to panic. I trust in the new man to implement sensible selection for the two remaining games of a championship that is still there to be won.

Belfast Telegraph