Sunday 5 February 2023 Dublin: 0°C
# in from the side
In momentum championship Ireland and Wales have the ball slowly rolling
Saturday is beginning to look like a Six Nations decider.

IRISH PLAYERS WERE instantly on message after Sunday’s 28 – 6 win over Scotland.

The phrase and sentiment of ‘a win is a win’ was as good as banned, improvement was the order of the day and Jonathan Sexton arrived on our TV screens to remind us that three tries and a win had been the yield in the opening game of last year’s championship too.

It’s a useful rod for this team to beat themselves with, but aside from the timing of the game, it’s a completely different situation.

The trouble with starting a sentence with ‘all due respect’ is that it instantly implies disrespect. So, all due respect to Scotland and Italy, but they were teams who had been beaten long before they crossed the line on this opening weekend.

Italy did depart Cardiff with plenty of plaudits for their positive approach under the roof. However, they were allowed to hold possession with Warren Gatland’s defence confident that the Azzuri would be kept at bay.

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The reigning champions probably did break a little sweat; but with tries coming from a lucky bounce and a burst tackle from Jamie Roberts on first phase ball, Wales largely kept their powder dry. It was noticeable that as soon as Michele Campagnaro’s intercept got Italy back into the game the hosts were instantly able to find the extra gear or two they needed nudge clear again.

Ireland were made to work much harder, but it was a similar case. Having won only four Tests in 2013, this team had a lot more to prove in the opening weekend.

Despite Paul O’Connell’s midweek reminders to the squad, intensity was noticeably lacking in the first half. And yet, there was a very real sense of a process being followed.

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This victory didn’t remind us so much of last season’s Six Nations’ opener as much as the November Test against Samoa: useful opposition, without real winning intent. Ireland were slow to start, intent on getting the basics right and ensuring the gameplan in attack and defence was rock solid before putting the foot down a little with redoubled focus on possession in the second half. And when ‘plan A’ left Ireland stuck in their own half for most of the first 40 minutes, the second 40 brought a different approach.

’Players aren’t robots’, as Ronan O’Gara says.  And the peak passion witnessed in November cannot be switched on and off. Rather than expend all of Ireland’s emotional currency on a game that could and was won comfortably without it, what Schmidt has done is send his team out with the processes needed to win and win well. Job done.

The nature of a tournament which is run off in five games across seven short sharp weeks means that momentum is an absolutely invaluable commodity in the Six Nations. Each step brings you one step closer to the goal and each completed task gives a player more reason to focus, more reason to care and more of the intensity which so often puts extra percentages onto a performance of an individual and collective.

This weekend, France have claimed the biggest scalp, while England will look at the fixture list and tell themselves they can row back into contention – and they will both find momentum in victory this weekend. However, the performances of Ireland and Wales were designed to get the ball, just about, rolling before an almighty tussle in week two.

Never mind the Lions, never mind Brian O’Driscoll; that’s all a sideshow this weekend. Schmidt will have targeted this game because our neighbours across the sea are the best team in the championship. The Kiwi knows there is only one way to dethrone them; start steady, finish strong.

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