Saturday 10 December 2016

George Hook: The ideal replacement for Joe Schmidt is staring us right in the face

Published 20/05/2016 | 02:30

Joe Schmidt and (right) Pat Lam
Joe Schmidt and (right) Pat Lam
Paddy Jackson during the captains run at the Kingspan Stadium yesterday Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

The story of this season, from an Irish context, has been the remarkable rise of Ireland's forgotten province. Connacht have single-handedly lit up the rugby calendar at a time when dark shadows have dominated the professional landscape.

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Indeed, the 2015-16 season will mostly be remembered for its mediocrity; when Ireland were content to settle for a mid-table Six Nations finish; when Munster and Leinster appointed unproven coaches with predictable results; and when Connacht broke free from the shackles of the also-rans to become serious contenders at rugby's top table.

Pat Lam's penchant for substance and flair has rubbished the idea that Irish rugby cannot be attractive to watch and successful at the same time.

In fact, Lam's blueprint of high-tempo, running rugby has forged a progressive path for the next generation.

Connacht this season are a welcome reminder of the simplistic brilliance of the oval game, where their continued emphasis on possession and handling skills dominate the rugby framework.

It is and has always been the New Zealand way. Now, under Lam, it is Connacht's way.

The young stars, most of whom came through the academy, are reaping the rewards of training under a coach with a proper vision for how rugby should be played. Crucially, Lam has had the patience to build a different template and the confidence and belief in his players to pull it off. It is a perfect marriage.

And, as the Irish rugby fraternity worries itself into a panic about tying Joe Schmidt down to a long-term contract, it is a wonder that no-one has stopped to smell the roses.

The solution to Schmidt's inevitable departure - he's not planning on sticking around forever - is staring us all in the face.

Lam is already a wanted man on the back of three impressive years in Connacht, with Bath among his many suitors.

Lam has demonstrated - contrary to popular belief - that it doesn't take a lifetime to build a platform of skills that will facilitate an exciting and successful brand of rugby. Connacht are comfortable in possession and pass the ball freely among backs and forwards.

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Recently, Robbie Henshaw (above) said Connacht's progression isn't rocket science; rather it is based on good coaching and a group of players that is willing to learn. Why not have Lam involved with Ireland?

The definition of madness is to repeatedly do the same thing and expect different results.

Ireland were given a lesson against Argentina during the quarter-finals of the World Cup, yet Schmidt has refused to budge from a narrow game-plan in the interim. What happens when Ireland go to South Africa this summer and run into a brick wall?

Lam understands the benefits of creative rugby and, more importantly, he knows how to coach it. He should be given an opportunity to transfer his skills to the national squad.

If you're still not convinced, watch Connacht closely in the Pro12 semi-final against Glasgow tomorrow night. Witness a team of mostly young Irish players place a premium on possession, regardless of territorial position, in order to unlock the opposition defence.

Marvel at how comfortable they all are - backs and forwards - with ball in hand, how they refuse to kick away possession for the sake of it and how each player works to support the guy with the ball.

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Watch Matt Healy (above) and ask yourself how is it that Ireland's form winger has been ignored by the national coach this season. The same goes for Tiernan O'Halloran, who is light years ahead of Rob Kearney on current form.

Glasgow will undoubtedly be better prepared this time around for the cauldron atmosphere that awaits them, but Connacht have plenty of scope to improve on their performance two weeks ago. I expect them to win.

Meanwhile, the defeat in Ravenhill reinforced the view that Leinster under Leo Cullen are going nowhere.

Even if Leinster somehow manage to win the Pro12, it is inevitable that a new coach, with top level experience, will have to come in.

Leinster's record at the RDS this season suggests Ulster will have their work cut out, but if the last meeting is anything to go on, where Leinster's indiscipline was a by-product of their frustration at being unable to break their opponents down, Ulster really have little to fear.

Paddy Jackson has matured immeasurably and his influence, together with Ruan Pienaar at scrum half, will go a long way towards deciding the outcome.

Leinster appear to have the edge in the scrum, but Ulster are better coached, better drilled and have been playing better rugby for the majority of this season.

They also know how to win away from home, as their six-try, 46-26 demolition of the Ospreys in Swansea last time proved.

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