THE CLOCK WAS in the red and Ireland were building through the phases. Three years ago, in a strikingly similar scenario at the Stade de France, they made their way through 41 of them, starting on their own 22, ending up in folklore. But this time? They barely made it to the French ten-metre line.
Johnny Sexton watched on. Way back in 2018, he had the leading role in the great escape in the Paris rain. Now he was just an onlooker, his voice echoing around the Aviva Stadium.
What was there to see other than another gallant effort from a committed group of pros who take pride in their handiwork and refuse to clock off until the factory doors close for the night.
But the harsh truth is that graft isnt enough. Not at this level. Theres a difference between good teams and great ones and we saw that in 2018. Great sides almost always find a way to win, like Ireland did in 11 of their 12 tests that year, when they controlled possession, followed their strict coachs instructions and reaped the rewards: a Grand Slam, a series win in Australia, a victory over the All Blacks.
But theres also a difference between good and average. The average side dominate for half an hour, build a 3-0 lead, have a numerical advantage for 10 minutes but somehow turn a three-point cushion into a 7-3 deficit during a period when they have 15 players on the park and France just 14.
The average team heads into half-time seven points ahead of Wales but doesnt come up with the requisite strategy for the games decisive moments, coughing up two sloppy tries to lose a game they could as easily have won. The average team gets a lead in Paris on an October evening but fails to keep it just as they failed to build on first-half leads against England and Japan in 2019.
If you think were being overly harsh to call Ireland an average team right now then look closer at the evidence. Since Andy Farrell came in, theyve played 11 times, won six and lost five. Twenty-three years have passed since Ireland last lost their opening two games of this championship. A decline that started during Joe Schmidts final year has continued ever since, yesterdays 15-13 defeat to France the latest example.
Were bitterly disappointed about the two losses but weve improved massively as a group and personally I feel we are taking steps forward and going in the right direction, yesterdays try-scorer, Ronan Kelleher, said after the match. But we have to be more clinical.
And more disciplined. And defensively more connected. And more creative.
There are mitigating factors. At one stage yesterday, during the third quarter, Iain Henderson and Cian Healy disappeared for 10 minutes or so for medical attention; joining Johnny Sexton, Peter OMahony, James Ryan and Conor Murray on the list of absentees.
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Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
So, to put that in further context, thats practically your entire leadership group. I wouldnt say that was an issue, said Kelleher. Obviously the lads you named there have incredible experience and incredible leadership abilities but there is leadership throughout the squad, pretty much from 1 to 15. Everyone steps up.
They certainly need to now. Italy, two weeks from now, are next. Ireland will win that. Then two weeks later its Scotland in Murrayfield followed by England at the Aviva and it isnt a stretch to say that Ireland are as likely to end this season with one win to their name as they are to finish it off with three victories on the trot.
Way back in 2018, it was different. Five of those 11 victories were tight, one-score games. Ireland continually sealed the deal because their coach told them how to and the players were scared of their lives to incur his wrath. Tactically, they rarely veered off script, sticking to their low-risk, pressure game, which may not have been easy on the eye but was equally difficult to defend against.We are in a really good place at the moment, Schmidt said of his team after their win against the All Blacks. I know it is fickle because things can change very quickly.
He wasnt wrong. We just didnt know how quickly.
While you cant turn back time and cant re-appoint a coach who left off his own accord and has subsequently moved to the far side of the world, you can do one thing: dust off the Schmidt manual and teach it to these new players. Its the difference between winning and losing.