Tony Ward: Change of mindset can begin with provinces
Provincial willingness to experiment will help give kick-and-chase tactics the boot
Published 10/11/2015 | 02:30
Back in August, in the lead-up to the big kick-off, Ireland rose to third in the world rugby rankings. Three months on and we are down to sixth, second behind Wales in the northern hemisphere rankings and behind all four Rugby Championship teams. Is it a fair analysis on the basis of back-to-back Six Nations successes?
In a word, yes - although I would qualify it by saying that there is precious little difference between us and the Welsh or the other Six Nations, Italy apart. Joe Schmidt has taken Ireland to new places. Sadly, a World Cup semi-final is not one of them.
Hopefully, though, he will still be at the helm to give it another go in Japan in four years' time. He is a top-quality coach and we are very lucky to have him. Nobody will have been more disappointed with the manner in which our challenge fizzled out than the one steering our course.
And there are mitigating circumstances, specifically in terms of critical injuries to key players and while that comes with the territory of such an intense tournament, we were particularly unlucky nonetheless. As we have seen through two distinctly different winning styles at Leinster and Ireland, Schmidt can cut his cloth various ways.
With the post-World Cup review under way and another European Champions Cup campaign about to commence the head coach knows there is a need to radically reassess. There's no need to reinvent the wheel but we need a little more measured ambition to our rugby.
It may not lead to instant rewards - and a third Six Nations on the bounce - but even if there is to be some short-term pain in the search for longer-term gain then it's a sacrifice worth making. The general rule in coaching is picking a system to suit players and I accept that logic but there is still room for tweaking.
Leinster under Schmidt are the very best example and while key pieces in that jigsaw, specifically Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy, are no longer there very many of the same players are.
Something, anything, beyond slavish kick and chase has to make for a better tomorrow for the Irish national team.
As I have said here before, I could lump the ball into the air with the best of them. I remember well, having lost successive Munster Cup finals to Shannon with Garryowen, kicking the leather off the ball against Young Munster to avoid a third final defeat in a row. We won 3-0. Did I enjoy winning that medal? Apart from the tribal aspect, not one little bit.
Had Ireland had a full-strength side on duty against Argentina we might well have beaten them through strangulation, although they came out on top using safety-first tactics against us. Would we have beaten them with a full side? Based on the evidence at the World Cup, you would have to suspect the Pumas would have edged it regardless.
So where to from here? Well, for starters and as we have seen in the past, disappointment at the highest level for the national elite can be addressed almost immediately in the more close-knit confines of the province.
Reference Ronan O'Gara's return to Munster after the World Cup from hell in '07. The fast-moving nature of the professional game leaves little room for contemplation. It is all about the next match whether Pro12 or Europe. To that end it has been a positive return (Rob Kearney apart) for most of those back on bread-and-butter duty with their clubs.
All four Irish teams winning and occupying four of the top five places in the league, albeit just seven matches in, is a pretty good starting point in terms of morale within the various camps. Connacht under Pat Lam have certainly made hay when losing just two - Robbie Henshaw and Nathan White - to World Cup duty.
If I had one wish for the rest of the domestic season it would be to see the western province earn the right to inclusion in next season's Champions Cup on their own merit. Much like a long-distance race they have put themselves in a great tactical position early on although I'm sure this week's trip to Krasnoyarsk is one they could do without.
Great too to see Henshaw operating at full-back which is still by some way the most influential attacking position on a field if used to strategic effect. Matt Healy too is, along with Craig Gilroy, a creative finisher too good for Schmidt to ignore.
We are well served by wings and by extension back-three options just now but take away the kick and chase aspect and I'm damned if I can name our best back-three combination.
Take your pick from Tommy Bowe, Dave Kearney, Rob Kearney, Keith Earls (who hopefully will get a prolonged run wearing 13 for Munster), Andrew Trimble, Luke Fitzgerald, Simon Zebo, Gilroy and Healy. The last four have that X-factor if the main criterion is in picking wide men to finish instead of picking them to prevent the opposition from playing or competing in the air when chasing down kicks.
Just as Henshaw is being trialled at full-back for Connacht and Zebo for Munster, what about (Dave) Kearney and Gilroy in the last line at Leinster and Ulster respectively?
The Champions Cup is not, for many obvious reasons, the time to experiment but the Pro12 is. But if the mindset from the top down - from the IRFU and Ireland team management - is proactive in terms of tactical ambition then anything is possible.
If winning the Six Nations is the key objective there is nothing wrong with that. But if it is the extent of our ambition then start writing off a place in the last four in Japan right now.
Plenty of areas need attention. The captaincy for one, and the need for a Chris Henry-type flanker is immediate if we are to move beyond the limited ambition shown to date. Hopefully the return to Europe will prove enlightening. It can't come quickly enough.