Smal sure Irish can lift game for Kiwis
YESTERDAY was the International Day for Tolerance and possibly the day Ireland's ran out.
Since Saturday's unfulfilling 20-10 victory over a Samoan side ranked five places below them, brickbats have rained down on the Irish camp with a central theme revolving around confidence -- or more particularly, lack of it.
Enough is enough. Yes, the Irish have been disappointing in their opening two November internationals and yes, New Zealand warmed up for Saturday's clash at Lansdowne Road with an awesome dismantling of a Scottish side that ruined Ireland's Triple Crown aspirations at Croke Park last March.
However, if they find their mojo, there is a rich seam of quality in this Irish squad capable of putting it up to New Zealand, with managerial nous to back it up and the message from the team hotel in Killiney yesterday was determinedly positive.
"Playing against the number one team in the world means there will be plenty of motivation," said forwards coach Gert Smal. "The players will also back themselves -- there is a lot confidence that we can take them on. This is where composure comes into it, because you don't want to have too much fear and you don't want to have too much confidence, so you have to get that balance.
"We haven't played the best rugby we can play and there's quite a lot of negativity around them (the players) at the moment. That's just my personal experience, a lot of negativity around and a lot of things being said about their confidence, but I really don't feel that in the team.
"You have to take criticism where it comes from. The only way to turn that is with good performances. If you don't win, the night after the game every one -- players and management -- is a little bit down but you start preparing yourselves again and getting in your stuff with players. That's what you do in the early part of the week, rather than worry about the opposition, which comes later when you work on what you presume they will do.
"But when you are working on what you want to achieve as a team and where you want to take the game, we are very confident that what we want to do are the right things."
With Devin Toner calling the shots, the line-out performance against Samoa was a massive improvement on the disaster against the Springboks, but the scrum struggled for the second weekend in a row until Cian Healy came on for John Hayes and Tom Court switched to the tight-head side. With a new scrum coach in former All Black Greg Feek, Smal believes Ireland's scrummaging is a work in progress but, while he is not happy with where it is at, he is satisfied with the direction it is heading.
"In terms of accuracy and better movement, it was a better line-out performance," said Smal. "In terms of the scrums, in the first half... we are going through a process, systematical adjustments we have to make to individuals and you could see in the second half when we brought on guys that Greg has worked with for a long time -- like Cian, for instance -- there was a big difference and we put them under huge pressure.
"So, while I'm very happy with the progress, I'm not happy with where we are at, but with an important game on Saturday I think we'll be up there and there's a fair amount of space to improve on as well. I see their (New Zealand's) scrummaging as the best in the world, so that's one of our first challenges. I think they have improved their line-out as well."
With a delayed team announcement this week, Ireland have been giving little away as they seek to limit New Zealand's opportunities for more focused homework. However, whether or not he starts on Saturday, Toner unquestionably caught the eye with his debut display against Samoa and Smal was impressed with his performance out of touch.
"It's part of the process to have those choices in place," said Smal. "If Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll don't play, we want to get to a place where there is not a feeling of we don't stand a chance if they don't play. In terms of Devin, he has got a huge amount of potential. It's still early in his development. I don't know what's been done with him before and I've only seen him in the last two years, but there is a fair amount of potential.
"In terms of the line-out, what a pleasure to have that kind of height. But the game is not just about line-outs, it's all the other parts around it as well. We will look at his whole development and the more we concentrate on that, the better player he will be."