Ireland’s series win in Australia this summer elevates them into the same rarefied plane as the All Blacks at the top of world rugby.
Joe Schmidt’s side demonstrated once again in Australia that they’re so strong across all areas. They’re only getting better and, for me, New Zealand aren’t as fearsome a force as they used to be. The disparity has closed.
Ireland only have one massive vulnerability: the lack of cover for Conor Murray. If he goes down they could be in trouble because they haven’t been able to find anyone of real quality who can replace him if needs be. Alongside Jonny Sexton he’s been the man to make Ireland tick. I can’t think of any other player in the world who’s been as good in the last year as Murray has for the British and Irish Lions, Munster and Ireland.
Sexton is world-class too but Schmidt does have Joey Carbery, who can do a cracking job as an international level No10. Ireland’s Kiwi head coach doesn’t have a comparable option at scrum-half.
Fortunately for him, Ireland are much better at managing their star players’ workload than England. After a gruelling tour Down Under, Murray and Sexton probably won’t see a rugby field again until November. They’ll get one or two games just before the new Champions Cup season starts and away they’ll go, whereas the England boys will come back from tour, get about three weeks of rest and be thrown straight back into it.
The Irish Rugby Football Union’s policy of centrally contracting its players means Schmidt can tightly control how much game time they see for their clubs. Those clubs could complain, but the IRFU pays those players’ wages and calls the shots.
By contrast we’re seeing Premiership clubs and the RFU increasingly at loggerheads with each other over players’ workload and the burnout and injury issues that result from too many games. It’s nowhere near the same amount of control. A multimillionaire owner of a Premiership club like Bath’s Bruce Craig isn’t going to be told he can’t play the players whose wages he’s paying.
As a team, England are not as far behind as many fear, but there are glaring gaps in their game that need to be addressed and addressed fast.
England’s win in Cape Town on Saturday to prevent a series sweep for South Africa was all about stopping the rot. The conditions slowed everything down and nullified areas in which teams have been taking advantage of England in recent months. Yet in long-term lessons learned, there weren’t too many.
It was chucking down with rain, it was a dogfight and it wasn’t pretty. But it was enough. Now they need their players to rest up and kick on.
Ollie Phillips is leading a group of inspiring individuals to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro this October. To join him visit https://www.360-expeditions.com/expeditions/ollie-phillips-kilimanjaro