VICTORY OVER ENGLAND is always sweet for Ireland and we can rest assured that Joe Schmidt’s squad vigorously celebrated their 13-9 success last night.
But for men like Rory Best, Johnny Sexton and so many others, a frustrating feeling will gnaw at them today.
If Ireland were that good against Scotland in round one and Wales in round four, would they have climbed the podium at the Aviva Stadium yesterday, rather than watching as Eddie Jones’ England rather awkwardly lifted their trophy in Dublin?
“I think it’ll be frustration,” said Ireland captain Rory Best afterwards when asked how he will view this championship, in which Ireland finished second.
“The first 30 minutes [against Scotland] wasn’t us. Then probably just the Wales game, it was just those fine margins that we talked about last week. They’re the stuff we pride ourselves on winning and when we win games, we win more of those moments than we lose. We didn’t get that against Wales.
“Tonight was a bit more like us, a bit more like the form we showed in the autumn. It’ll be incredibly frustrating when we look back, but that will be for another day when we get together.
You have to be hugely proud of the way the boys went. Pete [O'Mahony] coming in late again and playing the way he did, Andrew Conway coming into win his first cap, Luke McGrath, that kick at the very end. We know we have a big squad.
“We can perform well. The frustrating thing is that we didn’t do it consistently throughout the championship.”
Looking for the positives in an overall sense, the continued growth of the likes of Niall Scannell and Kieran Marmion – largely because of injury to Conor Murray, admittedly – must rank right up there for Joe Schmidt.
Short-term gains are important for every side, but Ireland do look in a better place with the 2019 World Cup not all that far off in the background.
“I think we talked at the end of last season about how we had to dig deep and give players a chance in tough circumstances,” said Best of Ireland’s sense that they now have better depth. “We always said that would stand to us and it did in the autumn.
“It’s nights like this when you know you’ll need the bench. England emptied their bench and when you get tired, you need your bench. That’s the level you have to get to win in Test match rugby.
“When you look at how tight that was, 13-9, and we gave everything out there and that’s the level we have to aspire to every week.
“I think it’ll only stand to us in the future because, you look at what happened to Jamie [Heaslip] in the warm-up, you never know when a little knock, niggle, or bang, is going to knock somebody out.
“You always like to have a little more time to prepare but that’s what the squad is for.”
While fresher faces have grown into this Ireland squad, it has never been clearer how vital Johnny Sexton is to their chances of success.
Paddy Jackson is now an excellent Test out-half, of course, but Sexton remains the strongest player in this Ireland set-up. It was no surprise, therefore, to see England target him all evening in Dublin.
Best did his utmost to raise the issue with referee Jerome Garces, but his protests fell on deaf ears.
“Key players in key positions – we knew it was a really tough Test match and in really tough Test matches you try to be as close to the line as you can,” said Best.
“I don’t think it was anything other than trying to put pressure on Johnny but we have to look after our players and a key player like Johnny. Jacko has performed well for us in this championship, but you don’t want players going off unnecessarily.
“He [Garces] kept saying the TMO would keep an eye on it but, I suppose, he was saying that his job, his assistants, and the TMO, is to look after the players.
“All I said to him was that it’s my job as captain to make sure our players are looked after. I knew if I didn’t put a bit of pressure on him to look after them then I’d be getting it from Joe!”
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