Schmidt: If you stand still you get run over
Coach keeps faith with players but sees room for improvement
WHEN the selection of the reserve flanker is at once the major shock and the main talking point at an Ireland team announcement ahead of a visit to Twickenham, you can take it that the team are in a pretty good place.
Joe Schmidt had promised change and, with two amendments to his bench, he duly delivered on his word.
However, in sending the same starting XV into battle for the second successive game, the coach has shown faith in the men who have set up tomorrow's Triple Crown bid with two wins from their opening two games.
Not that he is entirely satisfied with their work. The coach knows tomorrow's meeting is another step-up in class, a challenge he described as among the toughest he has faced as a coach and he will demand improvement from his players.
"If you stand still you get run over," Schmidt said yesterday. "If you are satisfied with one performance, you know people are always looking for what you have done before and try and break you down.
"So, I do think it is one of the challenges – to keep moving forward; to keep progressing in what you are doing and, at the same time, not getting too far away from what you are good at."
The addition of uncapped 22-year-old Jordi Murphy to the bench ahead of Tommy O'Donnell was the only surprise at Carton House and the coach rationally explained that he had always planned to mix and match between the duo and wanted more cover across the back-row.
With Murphy covering Chris Henry and Jamie Heaslip, Iain Henderson's ascension in place of the injured Dan Tuohy sees him step up as next in line, despite Donnacha Ryan coming in to camp this week and, in the words of Schmidt "training the house down."
Henderson, however, has been in camp since the start of the campaign and came off the bench against Scotland. At 21, the seven-time capped Ulsterman brings a dynamism and an ability to cover the second-rows as well as Peter O'Mahony on the blindside.
He also reduces the average age of the replacements to 25, meaning there is plenty of youth in the legs to come into the fray during the second half.
With his record of success from his time with Leinster and such a promising start behind him, Schmidt can make such calls from a position of real strength.
Sure, the selection of 15 players out of the 23 from his former province will raise eyebrows from those who will see O'Donnell's omission as a further snub to Munster on top of the perceived
slight to the exiled Simon Zebo, but the coach is not one for sentiment of misguided loyalty.
He has simply picked what he feels is the best squad to get the job done.
Whether Murphy is ready for what the coach readily admitted is a "massive" jump in class is something we'll find out tomorrow, but given the size and talent of the English back-row, Schmidt reckons he needs more cover across this area and believes the Leinster young player of the year will feed off being backed for his first cap.
"For Jordi, it will be a massive step-up, but there's no way to escape that," he said of the former Blackrock student who will become the 10th new cap since the conclusion of last year's Six Nations if he makes his debut.
"I think one of the things about demonstrating your confidence in players and confidence in your wider squad is that it's probably reciprocated by the player. They have a confidence in themselves that we've got some faith in them and, hopefully, that's borne out in their performances.
"We just feel that it's going to be attritional, it's going to be massively physical and we just feel that we've got a little bit more back-row cover as a result, while Iain Henderson can cover Paul and Dev in the second-row. That's probably the easiest way I can explain it."
The two-week gap has allowed him to diffuse any residual hype from the emphatic win over Wales and Paul O'Connell's comments yesterday about Warren Gatland's side being far from their best at Lansdowne Road summed up exactly what Schmidt has been up to in keeping feet on the ground ahead of one of his biggest tests as a head coach.
If England are expecting a similar game plan from Ireland you get the feeling they're in for a shock.
Innovation has always been a strong point for the New Zealander and, while the basics upon which the victories over Scotland and Wales have been built – the maul, the kicking game, strong rucking and discipline – will remain key any Irish player who thinks they can rest on their laurels are mistaken.
Asked what they can improve on, the coach chose the one area that has been heralded as a success more than most – his yet-to-be-breached defence.
"There was a couple of stats quoted during the week that we wouldn't perceive as accurate," he said. "I think we have been overrated as to how effective our tackle has been, so we are going to have to be very, very effective in our first- up tackle.
"Defensively, we're going to have to be very, very accurate in our first-up tackle. I think with the ball we're going to have to be well resourced at ruck time. They (England) come in, they are very, very good at muddying the ruck.
"When they sniff a chance they are very destructive at the ruck and they pour numbers through – dynamic, physical men."
While Ireland's work in the tackle in defence has been good, the support of the ball carrier is something the side may need to focus on and Henry may be deployed in the wide channels off set-piece ball to help retain possession in a wider game than has been seen so far, with the example of Andrew Trimble getting turned over in the Welsh '22' during the first half at Lansdowne Road being cited.
"Those ones, they are incredibly frustrating because that was 8-9 metres out from the line and we got turned over there, so yeah, it's something that you are always working on and we've continued to work on this week," Schmidt said.
Schmidt is confident that his players are ready for the task at hand and, having fretted about "player anxiousness" in the immediate aftermath of the win over Wales, he reckons they have managed to put themselves in a strong position ahead of a major step-up.
"They've managed themselves really well," the coach said. "They had a player meeting last night that I observed.
"They were determined in what they needed to deliver and I think when you are process focussed, it distracts you from the various pressures that cause anxiety.
"Twickenham is a cavernous ground, but, at the same time, I think it's a very close ground, so there's that cacophony of sound that you get.
"As long as the players stay process focused, I think, though you can't get rid completely of the anxiety, you can dissipate it a little bit."
He has backed them, now it's their turn to deliver.