Saturday 3 December 2016

Now the perfect time for Joe Schmidt to take risks

Title looks beyond Ireland so it's an ideal opportunity to look at new options and target South Africa tour

Published 16/02/2016 | 02:30

Paddy Jackson has been the in-form out-half in Ireland this season but has so far been overlooked by Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Paddy Jackson has been the in-form out-half in Ireland this season but has so far been overlooked by Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile

Joe Schmidt reckons the game-plan isn't broken, so maybe it's time to change those carrying it out.

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The Ireland head coach's idea of taking risks is more akin to walking into a casino rather than putting the money on the table, but with the title gone the stakes are lower than they ever have been and he still has some cards to play.

The New Zealander's main goal now should be winning the Test series in South Africa in June. The Six Nations is gone to all intents and purposes and, while a heavy defeat in Twickenham would have no benefit for anyone, further injury has offered him a chance to change things up and try out some new players.

The concession of 23 points in 160 minutes of rugby suggests that even in the twilight zone between defensive coaches, the defence is doing okay in the aftermath of the Argentina drubbing.

Schmidt will have spotted the number of tight forwards hanging out in the backline quicker than France did and can sort that easily enough, but the focus on the next 12 days must surely be to find a try-scoring touch.

One try from seven line-breaks was deemed a bad return by Ireland against Wales and for all that they failed to get clear of the claustrophobic French defence on Saturday, they spent more than enough time in the home 22 to expect a bigger return than nine points.

They have only scored three points in second halves in their two games to date and, while conditions in Paris and the tough schedule itself have hindered Ireland's efforts, Schmidt himself has said the players will offer no excuses for their inability to get over the line.

Ill-fated

There are clear parallels between Ireland's issues in the red-zone and Munster's during their ill-fated Champions Cup campaign and, yesterday, in his in-house interview on IRFU TV Schmidt lamented a lack of leadership in a team shorn of some big personalities since the World Cup.

That points to Ireland's decision making rather than the plan of attack.

For all that referee Jaco Peyper was the subject of the coach's ire in the immediate aftermath of the Stade de France defeat, his attention will surely have focused on his players soon enough.

He will have to make changes for the England game on Saturday week. Sean O'Brien is out, Dave Kearney is likely to join him and news that Mike McCarthy is to see a specialist about the concussive blow that saw him stretchered off must be a concern.

Add in Johnny Sexton's latest struggles after a game in which he was clearly targeted by a French team who succeeded in rattling him and there is scope for change.

Paddy Jackson has been the in-form out-half in Ireland this season and should surely be in line for at least a bench spot after Ian Madigan's botched restart on Saturday.

Tommy O'Donnell is the natural choice to replace O'Brien and he did well in Paris, but the decision to jettison Rhys Ruddock for game two seems questionable when you're dealing with a lack of leadership.

The 24-year-old doesn't have a lot of caps to his name, but he has consistently been named captain of teams he's been part of. He also has the kind of physicality that allows him to stand up to the kind of onslaught that France threw at Ireland in the closing stages.

McCarthy's blow may allow Ultan Dillane to make his international bow at Twickenham and the Connacht player's ball-playing abilities could add to Ireland's attacking options.

One puzzling element of Schmidt's time in charge has been his bench strategy.

From Felix Jones' presence as an unused sub for most of last year's campaign to the disappearance of Sean Cronin midway through the World Cup, there have been questionable calls.

Richardt Strauss has never let his adopted country down, but it made little sense when he leap-frogged his Leinster colleague last weekend. Cronin's lineout might not be on point all the time, but surely the sight of him torpedoing Jamie Roberts in full flight was enough to earn him the No 16 jersey once again.

Why was Fergus McFadden parachuted on to the bench ahead of Craig Gilroy when the Ulsterman was in the initial squad and his Leinster rival has had a strange season?

What did Kieran Marmion do during his 80 minutes on the bench against Wales to merit being dropped for Eoin Reddan, who then spent the entirety of the game against France as an unused replacement?

What of a change in strategy? Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne are well able to cover the back-three positions, so why not bring on the bruising off-loading threat of Stuart McCloskey to test a tiring defence a la Sonny Bill Williams for the All Blacks?

At what point does Garry Ringrose come into the equation?

Henshaw showed such good attacking touches during the World Cup that it seems a shame to see him limited to hard carries in the busy shipping lanes and one wonders whether he could be freed to do more with ball in hand if he shifts out one if Payne doesn't recover in time for Twickenham if McCloskey starts.

These are all questions that could be put to the head coach if he didn't limit his media engagement to tight windows pre and post-match.

It's a shame, because Schmidt is a fine communicator who is well able to explain himself when he wants to, and one imagines that if he put his side of the story across more often he'd be able to silence some of the pundits who get under his skin so often.

Transmission

Yesterday, we heard from the head coach via the union's own transmission as he briefly spoke about his side's lack of an attacking edge.

"When you lose a little bit of leadership, sometimes you've just got to find a way," he said. "I just felt that we didn't convert some of the pressure that we put on them into points."

Things don't get any easier for the head coach, who had never presided over three games without a win in his time with Ireland before.

He has always spoken about how heavily the pressure that this job brings weighs on his shoulder and he'll be acutely aware of the level of flak he's taking, but you don't accumulate the honours Schmidt has without having the ability to manage through adversity and he'll be working harder for solutions than anyone else.

Everything should be up for review. The title is gone and, while the difference between third and fifth might be financially relevant, the long-term gain from some innovative selection when so many players are injured surely out-weighs the short-term boost to the coffers.

Ireland have nothing to lose, it's time to throw off the shackles.

Irish Independent

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