Ronan O’Gara: The reasons Ireland are, pound-for-pound, the world’s best

Ronan O’Gara: The reasons Ireland are, pound-for-pound, the world’s best

IT may be for another day but the potential of a France-Ireland World Cup quarter-final on the horizon tends to lure one into comparisons of their respective quivers and the arrows therein.

Pound-for-pound, Ireland go into a Grand Slam-chasing final weekend of the Six Nations as the best side in the world. But what we saw from France in Twickenham, I don’t think Ireland have that in their locker. That capacity to go from nought to fifty in a heartbeat. Would Ireland beat England 53-10 at Twickenham? 

Perhaps we are not asking the right question: Of greater relevance is whether France have the capacity to maintain that high 8.5 out of ten level from half to half and game to game? Would it be a surprise to see them struggle against Wales on Saturday?

Ireland have reached that point under Andy Farrell. They had to dig into deep reserves of dexterity, losing three forwards in the opening 25 minutes at Murrayfield, and further complications would follow. But they have a solution-based intelligence to their game now. A case in point is Cian Healy coming in at hooker. It makes people think outside the box when you have performances like that from three props in the front row.

The most important difference from the Schmidt era, and what makes Ireland a more attractive and dangerous proposition, is their ability to score from anywhere. James Ryan’s late surge for what would have been a bonus point-securing try being the exampla gratis at Murrayfield. Think where that started from. That facility wasn’t there under the previous regime. The most potent extra Ireland has added is shedding their predictability and gaining the capacity to keep the ball alive and trust their instincts to play the moment. That is way more powerful than most can imagine.

Schmidt delivered serious success, but in dong so he erased that totally, preferring the structured approach achieved via repetition, repetition, repetition. It probably covered seven out of ten scenarios (and delivered its own Grand Slam), but when pressure came on – against the Japanese and New Zealand in the last World Cup, for instance – we looked like the student whose exam question didn’t come up in the test paper. High, dry and stumped.

DEVELOPING STORY: Ireland head coach Andy Farrell speaking during an Ireland rugby media conference at the Aviva Stadium on Thursday. Picture: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

You have to train that. You can’t just talk about it. There is a very interesting balance between being open to an expansive game plan and being ruthless. This Ireland team is ruthless. You can have your fun but need to nous and the experience to recognise when it is switch-on time.

It helps when you have a Hugo Keenan or a performance from Mack Hansen, who delivered as impressive game at Murrayfield from an Irish back as I’ve seen in some time.

Ireland will, minimum, have to play to that level to get beyond the World Cup quarter-finals. When you lose a Garry Ringrose, it hurts because there isn’t 13 as good as him in Ireland, and possibly in the northern hemisphere. World class. 

The subtlety he brings is somewhat under-appreciated. It’s the Jonathan Danty thing – the more you don’t play, the more appreciation for you grows. Ringrose is there now and he will be a miss on Saturday. What the Rome experience this year has done is further inform Ireland’s midfield combinations. They got it wrong against Italy, a prime example of the folly of trying to play a 12 as a 13. I could not think of two more dyed-in the-wool twelves that Bundee Aki and Stuart McCloskey. I am not sure what Keith Earls’ status – I would see a lot of Ringrose traits in him – but I don’t think he is viewed in the camp as that option.

Also, as impressive as Ireland’s resilience proved against Scotland, they were helped by their hosts’ gross ineptitude. Talk about releasing the valve at key moments. If there were goalposts on the sidelines, Scotland would have been scoring tries for fun. You’ve got to run the hard lines. They looked potentially dangerous at times, and always will under the mercurial baton of Finn Russell. But they were at home, going for a title, and seldom looked like making Ireland doubt themselves – in spite of all their in-game problems. That’s not good enough.

Duhan van der Merwe alone could have cost Scotland  possible 14 points. In attack, with a glaring overlap, all he had to do was throw it in the air and Hogg walks it in. Then on the three-on-three defence for Conan’s try, he chooses to turn inside. Wow. That would break your heart as a coach.

If you expect that inconsistency from Scotland, what England produced – hardly the right term – against France was bewildering. I’m watching rugby a while and don’t remember a capitulation at Twickenham like that from the home side. On their worst days, England would always front up physically. But last weekend they looked more like a Barbarians selection throw together, which is an awful thing to say on relation to the Six Nations.

Steve Borthwick has big issues and a small window of time. Interestingly I spent a most enjoyable and stimulating hour on Thursday with Eddie Jones, his predecessor here in La Rochelle. Talk about the perception versus the reality. Eddie has a great rugby mind, and he has his feet well in under the table as Australia head coach. He was here to check out and catch up w

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