Sunday 30 April 2017

Attack to be key area of Schmidt focus

Ireland must be world-class with the ball if they are to achieve anything at the 2019 World Cup in Japan
Schmidt has eight months to plan for his next real Test-match in November when South Africa, Argentina and a Tier Two nation will visit Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Schmidt has eight months to plan for his next real Test-match in November when South Africa, Argentina and a Tier Two nation will visit Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

In the aftermath of his team's compelling win over England, Joe Schmidt returned to a theme that has been central to his four seasons in charge of Ireland.

Once again, the New Zealander expressed his frustration with the fact that he will have no day-to-day involvement with his players until June as they go back to their provinces in pursuit of the glory that evaded them in the Six Nations.

Even when he gets a hold of the squad in the summer, it will be lacking in stardust. It is reasonable to expect that around 10 of his front-liners will be in New Zealand with the Lions, while the provincial run-in will likely rob him of some more key men.

So, the game against the United States and the subsequent two-match tour of Japan will take on a developmental look.

Having handed out 20 new caps since the World Cup, the head coach will look to develop those who have put their hands up.

The June window aside, Schmidt has eight months to plan for his next real Test-match in November when South Africa, Argentina and a Tier Two nation will visit Dublin.

It's a long time for the coach to stew on a frustrating Six Nations campaign and he will have a root-and-branch look at why his side were out of the running before the final game against England.

At the end of it all, he will identify the areas he needs to tighten up as the 2019 World Cup cycle reaches its second stage.

Leadership

He will be focusing in on the age profile of his leadership group, his squad's depth and how the impending influx of Special Project players will fit in and before he parts company with Lions-bound Andy Farrell there will be discussions on how to tighten up the defence.

Top of the list, however, will be Ireland's attack.

There is no doubt that Schmidt (pictured) has moved Ireland's game-plan on over the course of his four seasons in charge.

Ireland's statistics have never looked better under the coach.

They make 26pc more runs with the ball than they did in 2014, kick the ball from hand 14pc less. They beat more defenders, offload more frequently and make 31pc more passes.

And yet, Schmidt's side were unable to cut loose despite their improved play.

This season, they scored 14 tries, nine of which came against Italy. That tally of five touchdowns from the four non-Italy games is their lowest under the current coach. In 2014, they crossed for nine, while it was six apiece in 2015 and 2016.

Schmidt's mission is to understand how a team that could cross for five tries in 80 minutes against the best team in the world in November could only muster the same return across 320 minutes of tournament rugby.

When asked about what separates his side from the very best, the head coach refers to the depth available to New Zealand and England with the inference being that they can endure injuries to key men and replace them with players of a similar calibre.

When asked about the criticism of his side's lack of a clinical edge, he spoke about fine margins and refereeing decisions that denied his side at crucial moments.

The easiest fix perhaps is to get the lineout running at close to 100pc again.

Against Wales and Scotland, turnovers at vital times cost Ireland dear when they were about to go for the jugular. Still, there were other openings and their inability to take those reflect an over-reliance on the lineout maul.

When he became Leinster coach, Schmidt honed in on his side's passing skills.

Watching England execute their brilliant, match-winning try against Wales, you wondered if Ireland would have had the passing range, vision and courage to exploit the overlap the way Owen Farrell and Co did.

They rarely pass received kicks in search of space and if they did it could revolutionise their counter-attack.

On the final day, the inclusion of Jared Payne showed how a second-receiver can open up a whole new Schmidt play-book.

Rob Kearney had a fine tournament, but his passing game is not at Payne's level. Simon Zebo does that role well for Munster and could have slipped in with Kearney covering but that didn't happen.

Until Payne's inclusion, Ireland were over-reliant on Sexton who touches the ball far more in a single phase than any of his out-half rivals.

When it works, his trademark wrap-around is one of the better sights on offer in the international game but when the opposition know what's coming it can be frustrating.

Ireland made plenty of clean breaks, but their inability to finish them off was consistent throughout.

When unable to punish the scrambling defence, they resorted to one-out carries in the opposition '22 and ramped up the phases.

Pressure

Often, they earned penalties through that pressure but direct tries were all too infrequent.

Because there is little kicking threat, defences can bring all 15 men into the line and choke up the running channels, but Scotland in particular looked better placed to work scores in this scenario given their passing range out wide.

It has been a near constant source of frustration over the last number of seasons and perhaps the biggest area of growth available to Schmidt.

He could also look at developing a bench with more match-changing impact and the arrival of Bundee Aki on to the scene in November could allow him to pick a game-impacting No 23 a la Sonny Bill Williams or Ben Te'o for the first time.

His side are playing with huge intensity regularly.

Their win/loss ratio isn't all that impressive since the 2015 World Cup, but since England beat them relatively comfortably in Twickenham last year there has not been an easy game for an opponent.

They have beaten the three teams above them in the world rankings and their next goal will be to put together a run of consistent results.

The summer tour and the November schedule offer a chance to go through the rest of 2017 unbeaten, but if they are to take the next step and reclaim their Six Nations Championship and, thus, send out a statement of World Cup intent, they will need more nuance to their attacking game.

Schmidt won't be happy with second place and rarely settles for anything less than the best, so his attention will turn to developing Ireland's game beyond where it is now.

If he can remedy the attacking issues, his team can take the next step.

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