Sport Comment & Analysis

Thursday 28 August 2014

Monday Breakdown: Six Nations - Five things we learned

David Kelly

Published 17/03/2014 | 02:30

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@BrianO'Driscoll Phew! Worked out ok! Thanks for all the messages of support. Unreal feeling. Not easy taking this off for last time
@BrianO'Driscoll Phew! Worked out ok! Thanks for all the messages of support. Unreal feeling. Not easy taking this off for last time
@Ian_madigan Great to enjoy the last moment in green with @BrianODriscoll
@Ian_madigan Great to enjoy the last moment in green with @BrianODriscoll

For whatever reason – unclear development of an expansive game plan or an over-reliance on the same routine and personnel – Ireland failed to really substantiate their 2009 championship success, aside from the gritty, one-off success against Australia during the World Cup 2011 pool stages, a notable scalp, but one that utterly franked an unwanted tag as Ireland elevated inconsistency to an art form.

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IRELAND WON'T STOP NOW

This time it must be different.

Some of the same coaching staff and players remain. But the culture has been significantly altered – players report a dynamic in terms of the type of intensive work at squad gatherings as being "off the charts" compared to previous years.

Ireland may not broadcast it too wisely – albeit in the mixed zone, their players did speak of this being a stepping stone to bigger things – but beating France and reaching a World Cup semi-final in 2015 now becomes the priority for Joe Schmidt's men.

THE GAME PLAN CAN AND WILL CHANGE

Schmidt has openly admitted that his debut championship has taken him by surprise in terms of his ability to develop his preferred range of structure and content; the disparity between the time available at provincial and international level is vast.

The surprise, in many ways, was that Ireland managed to produce such a consistently high run of performances throughout the campaign; any diminution was normally down to individual errors.

Schmidt built his side upon the foundations of an almost consummate set-piece and a commitment to technical proficiency at the breakdown, such that Ireland were statistically by far the likelier side to protect their own possession at ruck and maul.

As the campaign grew, particularly against Italy, there were signs of a more subtle development of a game plan that will be required to make a difference consistently at the highest level.

We shall see this process extend in the fertile breeding grounds of the summer tour and November series to come.

FIND AN INSIDE

CENTRE AS WELL

As you may now be aware, if Brian O'Driscoll is at the next World Cup, it will be as a spectator when Ireland seek to repeat this season's Italian and French double and thus steer them away from the All Blacks.

Ireland will want to meet – and beat – the Kiwis. Preferably in a final.

O'Driscoll has spent a year grooming potential successors, as we know, but even though Gordon D'Arcy retains a desire to play in the next World Cup, Schmidt will be anxious to develop an alternative.

Luke Marshall's career has suffered some serious setbacks, so another Ulster man, Stuart Olding may benefit after he recovers from this lost season due to knee trouble.

Ironically, O'Driscoll's absence will have the knock-on effect of allowing Schmidt an opportunity to inject even more pace into Ireland's three-quarters.

EVERYONE IS INVITED

There has been a perception, fuelled by provincial parochialism, that Schmidt has relied too heavily on Leinster players, almost as if it were his personal predilection.

This is, of course, nonsense and when there are barstool arguments about who should be the 24th man in an Ireland squad, we know people are desperately clutching at straws.

Schmidt clearly relied on elements – and players – that he trusted. Some, obviously, more than others. Although there was rarely a quibble with any line-up, the squad selections didn't always bear fruit.

The bench sparkled against tired Italy, but laboured, or wasn't trusted, against England and France. Now that his method of teaching has been cast in stone – successfully – not one single Irish-qualified player can declare that they are ignorant of what is expected from them. There is an open-door policy – not a closed shop.

CHALLENGE SEXTON

If Ireland are serious about challenging for the game's highest honour in Twickenham next year, then the national coach has to implement a policy at provincial level that will allow him to advance recognisable back-up, or a realistic competitor, for his out-half.

Sexton may have returned to Ireland by the time the World Cup is played, but, regardless, he faces another season beyond the direct control of the national coach and that remains a vexing issue.

Instead, Schmidt needs to control what he can; within reason. Ian Madigan is not a first-choice for Leinster; Paddy Jackson is not a first-choice place-kicker for Ulster.

Both these problems affect each player and, ultimately, the coach.

The conundrum cost Ireland in Twickenham – and Paddy Jackson his place in the squad on Saturday – and may do so again if unresolved.

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