JOE SCHMIDT HAS been in the Ireland hotseat for six months and has already endured that uncomfortable sensation of watching bodies drop on Heineken Cup duty.
Not a weekend seems to go by, in fact, without a senior Irish player succumbing to injury. That is what must have made last weekend such a welcome, enjoyable break.
The headlines were grabbed by gritty performances and stunning solo efforts rather than stark summations accompanied by pictures of grimacing faces and the words ‘weeks’ or ‘months’. Schmidt may yet look back at 10-12 January as a high point of his year. If it is the high point Irish fans may be in for a bleak year but the signs are positive, the future bright.
Paul O’Connell clocked off, at 7:56pm on Saturday night, having delivered another immense performance in a Munster jersey. The Ireland captain was a menace to the Gloucester line-out, tackled any cherry red jersey that moved and enacted four turnovers for his team. O’Connell was still there as the clock ticked red, charging off in support of Simon Zebo’s hack upfield and urging his teammates on.
Gloucester coach Nigel Davies declared, “Paul O’Connell is phenomenal. There are certain characters in teams that have a huge influence and effect. It is not just his ability as a rugby player, it’s how he galvanises the team, and his sheer presence is a huge factor for Munster.”
While O’Connell was the leading Irish light, a number of other players are in form and Schmidt will only hope it will continue into February and beyond. The stand-out performers in recent weeks include Luke Fitzgerald, Peter O’Mahony, Keith Earls, Jamie Heaslip, Robbie Henshaw and Paddy Jackson.
Focusing on a player from each province, sterling outings from Henshaw and Jackson is a further sign that their provincial and national coaches were right to promote them to first-team action despite their tender years. The bonus for Schmidt, form-wise, is Luke Fitzgerald.
When entrusted with the goal-kicking duties last month, Jackson held up his end. He still has the tendency to miss a simple shot at the sticks soon after nailing a touchline conversion, but the kicking percentage is creeping up to the 80% mark. When Ruan Pienaar is given the responsibility of goal-kicking, Jackson hangs back and opens teams up. He has two tries this season and is backing his playmaking abilities, as seen at Ravenhill on Friday as his sublime crossfield kick found Robbie Diack to score.
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Pat Lam looked to have mothballed the Henshaw at centre experiment late last year but injury to Dave McSharry and the emergence of fullback Darragh Leader has restored the Athlone native to the 13 jersey. Henshaw has enjoyed the greater involvement in backline and front-up defensive play. He looked every inch the heir to Brian O’Driscoll’s Ireland jersey in the 20-3 win over Zebre as he roved the field to get his hands on the ball, tackled solidly and regularly turned defence to attack. Added to that, the 20-year-old grabbed his first ever Heineken Cup try.
Fitzgerald’s purple patch, stretching over two months at this stage, should give Schmidt an additional headache when it comes to selecting his wingers for the Six Nations. The Leinster back took confidence from his strong substitute showing against New Zealand. Along with Heaslip and Jordi Murphy, the Wicklow man has been his team’s best player during a middling [performance more than results] couple of months.
Luke Fitzgerald does some juggling under the watchful eyes of Northampton’s Luther Burrell. INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Fitzgerald was Leinster’s most enterprising back in their comeback win over Castres and his December hat-trick, away to Northampton, proves that he still knows where the whitewash is applied. Schmidt’s wing options [surnames only] read: Fitzgerald, Zebo, Earls, Bowe, D Kearney, Gilroy, Trimble, Morris.
The final round kicks off with Leinster v Ospreys on Friday. Schmidt, and rugby fans across Ireland, will be hoping for more of the same.
What Irish player has most impressed you in recent weeks?
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