Saturday 29 April 2017

Mixed emotions for Schmidt as he settles for second

Joe Schmidt shares a joke with Sean O’Brien after Ireland’s victory against England. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt shares a joke with Sean O’Brien after Ireland’s victory against England. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Before a ball was kicked, Joe Schmidt gave himself a target of a top-two finish and their place at the head of the chasing pack looked just about right on Saturday night.

However, when the warm glow of their display against England has worn off, the squad of players will reflect on this campaign as a missed opportunity.

They made the Six Nations champions look pretty ordinary while denying them a second successive Grand Slam and although their place in the world's top four had already been assured as a result of Wales' dramatic defeat in Paris, they reminded everyone why they deserve to be there anyway, with a display of huge intensity that left Eddie Jones' men searching for answers.

"There is a degree of frustration and a fair element of pride," Schmidt said.

"But I think no matter what happened it was always going to be a very, very tight Championship and if the Championship had been on the line today, it would have been fantastic.

"At the same time, with the bonus point that England got last week, even if we won, we would have had to beat them with a bonus point.

Ireland's Jared Payne in action. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ireland's Jared Payne in action. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

"So, it was always going to be difficult to get to that level.

"Those frustrations will continue in the overall review of the Championship and, at the same time, it is incredibly positive to finish on a note like that because that was a monumental challenge against England."

Ireland insisted they took little joy from spoiling the party and if they want to exist in the upper echelons of the game, then they'll need to be true to their word.

Since the last World Cup, Schmidt's side have been on something of a roller coaster of results, but what has emerged is a capacity to survive and, at times, thrive in the furnace of Test rugby. Since they were well-beaten by England at Twickenham last February, they have participated in a series of high-quality, ultra-intense contests.

They are difficult to beat, but too frequently teams have found a way and the coach's next trick is to match that intensity with a more creative and effective attacking game plan that can unlock the tightest defences.

On Saturday, they scored one try to England's none in difficult conditions and, as with most of these games, there were moments where they were close to another.

Whether it's a referee's call or a top-class piece of defensive work, teams have found a way to stop them and there is a concern that the level of physicality required to beat the Six Nations champions is hard to replicate on a weekly basis during tournament rugby.

In adversity, Schmidt learned a lot about the men in his squad last weekend. Kieran Marmion finally got a start and proved that he can cope at this level; Peter O'Mahony came into the team at the 11th hour and his performance was such that it should never take another late injury to get him in again.

It must have been an uncomfortable 80 minutes for Jamie Heaslip, who watched from the dugout. Ireland didn't miss their vice-captain.

Given the unreliability of Ireland's information about injuries, it was no surprise that conspiracy theories started circling about how this was a Schmidt ploy to throw the English off their game.

Certainly, the decision to bench Devin Toner made more sense if O'Mahony was down to start, given the Corkman's lineout prowess, and the word from the camp is that the trio of O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien and CJ Stander did pack down at some stage in the week.

The coach was indignant about the suggestion that he had indulged in what Jack Charlton famously called "silly buggers" with the late change, describing it as a "flawed theory". Jones had a twinkle in his eye when he suggested that a leprechaun had taken Heaslip out in the warm-up.

Whatever happened, it worked out brilliantly for Schmidt, who could count himself blessed that fate contrived to get O'Mahony on to the pitch.

Although he spent much of the first-half with his hands on his knees, gasping for air, Jared Payne (pictured) also brought a hint of a new dimension to Ireland's attacking play and it was noticeable that the brilliant Johnny Sexton took far less on himself.

Rob Kearney had a fine season, but the Kiwi's passing range and lines of running when returning the ball caused England a world of problems.

And then there was the bench. The established figures, Toner and Cian Healy, made their mark, but it was the five young men with just 10 caps between them who really shone.

Luke McGrath's control and kicking, Andrew Conway's boundless debut enthusiasm and Dan Leavy's appetite for contact all helped Ireland through a tricky end-game against an English side who believed they would be able to wrest control back.

Jones' men came into the game having found a way to win 18 times in a row, defeating Australia four times on that run and taking the scalp of everyone but New Zealand.

As they transition into the second phase of their World Cup cycle when they go to Japan this summer, one of Schmidt's key goals will be to ingrain the type of winning mentality that has marked the Australian's time with England.

Having ended their world record run and done the same to the All Blacks in Chicago, it is time for Ireland to go and dominate for a while.

Schmidt is determined to deepen his squad and will use the opportunity of the Summer Tour to continue that process.

There is more talent to come off the production line and it was interesting to note last year's U-20 captain James Ryan was in with the squad at full-time, while the Ireland coach is a big fan of this year's star man Jordan Larmour.

Then there is the impending arrival of Bundee Aki, Tom McCartney, Wiehahn Herbst and Tyler Bleyendaal, who qualify on residency before next year's Six Nations to help grow the options available.

"Those guys, they have a job to do to displace guys who are already there," Schmidt said.

"I know we did have 10 Test matches in a row (in 2014-15), all but one were Tier One, so we have got to 10 before, we're currently one in a row so we have taken out first step. I'd certainly be very keen for the boys to add to that."

Saturday's performance simply guaranteed that he will bid farewell to most of his starters for the summer, meaning it will be eight months until the gang are all back together again.

It would have been a long time to stew on a bottom-half finish had they lost, but instead there is a strong base to build from once again.

Investments

"You are always trying to build," the coach concluded.

"Sometimes someone kicks the castle down and you have to start again. But you are always trying to build sometimes the small investments you make, you hope for a big dividend.

"I get more demanding of myself and the coaches get more demanding of themselves because we're just trying to help the players be as good as they can be. So we live with our own expectations.

"Everybody's trying to improve and it's tough because there's so many moving parts that it's very difficult to get all the decisions correct.

"We're trying to improve the way we play and the referees are trying to improve the way they can demonstrate their consistency and we've got a public who are enthusiastic and have an expectation that we'll keep improving.

"That's not a bad thing because that's what we want to do and that's what we're trying to do."

Irish Independent

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