Thursday 29 September 2016

Conditions and a lack of preparation time mean we can expect a familiar approach from Joe Schmidt

Published 04/02/2016 | 02:30

With one eye on the forecast for Sunday, Joe Schmidt is likely to be devising a plan that involves Johnny Sexton’s kicking game. Photo: Matt Browne / Sportsfile
With one eye on the forecast for Sunday, Joe Schmidt is likely to be devising a plan that involves Johnny Sexton’s kicking game. Photo: Matt Browne / Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt during squad training. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile

Ireland's approach to this opening fixture against Wales will be one of the most fascinating things to take in at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday.

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For the first time during his tenure, Joe Schmidt's game-plan is being openly questioned by fans and pundits after the desperately disappointing World Cup exit at the hands of Argentina.

One by one, players and coaches have been asked about whether we can expect something different from the Six Nations champions when they face Warren Gatland's men, but indications are that the template won't change a whole lot for the coming campaign.

Schmidt can point to his record of two successful Six Nations in two attempts and a World Cup campaign that was looking so good until a combination of injury and suspension struck, but critics argue that the New Zealander's conservative approach cost his side dear when the pressure came on in Cardiff last October.

The truth lies somewhere in between. The head coach is unlikely to throw out a formula that has largely been successful during his tenure, while he is cute enough to recognise the trends that evolved over the course of a World Cup that was dominated by the southern hemisphere sides.

He has had a limited time-frame to work in and is missing some big-impact starters who would have been expected to play a pivotal role this spring, which further tightens his options.

No Schmidt game-plan is ever the same as the last, and the coach and his players often talk about selecting from a menu of options when playing what's in front of them.

Traditionally, they have started conservatively and brought more options into play as tournaments have gone on, but the opening game against Wales is of such importance that the coach may have to introduce some of his pre-planned moves earlier than usual.

So, how will the Ireland coach approach the opening game of his side's three-in-a-row bid?

Weather forecasting

Ireland have trained in relatively benign conditions this week, but Schmidt will have had one eye on the forecast. He'll be fully aware of the rain and wind that is on the way to the capital on Sunday and will be planning appropriately.

This has backfired before. Two years ago, ahead of the opening game against Scotland, Ireland devised a game-plan built for wet-weather that never materialised, but given the changes to personnel and the traditional strength Ireland have in the air, it seems likely that the home side will go back to their strength and put the ball in the air.

Wales' selection of Gareth Anscombe at full-back will also tempt them to kick the ball high and chase hard. The Kiwi has only been in the northern hemisphere a year and, while he did feature during the World Cup, he has had limited exposure to the kind of pressure Ireland can put on under a dropping ball.

With good kicking options in Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton and a host of excellent chasers to choose from in the back three and midfield, Ireland will look to the air.

Defensive line-speed

Much of the focus will be on what Ireland do with the ball, but given their last outing was a disastrous defensive display as they shipped four tries and soaked tackle after tackle against Argentina, it was no surprise to hear that yesterday's training session was defensively focused.

The Pumas exploited Ireland's passivity to bash through the middle before gaining big yards out wide. The key to arresting the issue is in increasing line-speed when Wales have the ball.

"I don't think it has to be fundamentally changed," Sean O'Brien said of the defensive system.

"There were a few system errors at different times and the odd missed tackle and that leads to giving away yards and then not being able to get off the line. Once the fundamentals of our 'D' are in place and they're there every time, the system is sound. But if we miss a tackle or soak too much, it puts us under pressure."

With Les Kiss gone and Andy Farrell yet to take over, there is a squeeze on resources at Carton House, so there are unlikely to be any revolutionary changes to the system, it just needs to be executed better. If Ireland can pressurise Wales into mistakes, they can profit.

The scrum

Sunday will be Ireland's first Six Nations game without Mike Ross in the No 3 jersey since 2010, while Cian Healy and Marty Moore's absence will also be felt at set-piece.

That's three of the four props who have locked down the scrum in the last two seasons gone, meaning James Cronin - who did feature against Italy last year before Healy's return - and Tadhg Furlong will be introduced to the fray.

Wales do not have the best scrum, but they did stand up to England when the two sides met at the World Cup. Ireland have had their grumbles about the way Gatland's pack go to ground on a regular basis, with Cronin describing the opposition scrum as "messy" yesterday.

Much will depend on referee Jerome Garces, with whom Ireland weren't happy after the World Cup games against Italy and Argentina.

"It is just stay square and steady," was Cronin's assessment of how to stay on the French official's good side. "You ask any referee, he doesn't want it messy, and the Welsh can be messy.

"It is about eight men. The Argentinians are the most renowned scrummaging pack. They scrummage eight men, nothing less. It is not any one person, not the front-row. It is about being cohesive."

Jack McGrath will look to go after Samson Lee, who has a habit of setting his legs too far back and collapsing, while Rob Evans is relatively untested as he comes up against the experienced Nathan White. Ireland will look to play off scrum ball, but if they sense weakness they'll go for Wales.

Discipline

It's not just in the scrum where Ireland will need to stay on Garces' good side. Last year, they conceded 11 penalties in Cardiff and allowed Wales race into an early lead, while on their last meeting in the World Cup warm-up in Dublin, they gave away 14 penalties.

Balancing aggression with discipline will be key to stopping Wales gaining access into the game and has always been a pillar of Schmidt's approach.

Heads-up approach

This is perhaps the key thing that fans want to see from Ireland.

Nobody minds kicking when it is the correct option, but there is a feeling that sometimes the players take the conservative choice when the space lies elsewhere.

Against Wales last year and, again, in the Argentina game, Irish players took the wrong options when a simple pass or a shift in direction would have exploited a hard-worked overlap.

Ireland need to be aware of every opportunity and keep an open mind to play what they see. If they do that, then they can look a far more attractive team.

Irish Independent

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