| 11.1°C Dublin

Added value can be priceless


Last year against Scotland, Ireland suffered a demoralising and embarrassing defeat to a side that could barely believe their own luck. Photo: Brendan Moran

Last year against Scotland, Ireland suffered a demoralising and embarrassing defeat to a side that could barely believe their own luck. Photo: Brendan Moran


Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt

Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

Scotland's interim head coach Scott Johnson

Scotland's interim head coach Scott Johnson

Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE


Last year against Scotland, Ireland suffered a demoralising and embarrassing defeat to a side that could barely believe their own luck. Photo: Brendan Moran

Little Johnny hadn't been to school for over a week. He arrived into class and sat down without saying a word. His teacher, eager to find out where he had been, asked him: "Where have you been Johnny? No explanation and no note from your parents. Where have you been all this time? Why haven't you turned up for school?"

"Ah Miss, me dad got burned."

"Oh my God, was he burnt badly?"

"They don't f**k around at the crematorium, Miss."

Ireland's two losses to Scotland in recent history have been down to exactly that. They were f**king around in both of those matches. In 2006 in Croke Park, they probably tried too hard to get themselves out of trouble, but boy they were sloppy that day. In 2013, they just didn't try hard enough.

One of the competitive imperatives is that when you have a chance to nail somebody, you do it as quickly as you can with as much certainty as you can. Ireland were absolutely dominant for the first 35 minutes of that game last year and should have been three or four tries ahead.

They managed to mess up every try-scoring opportunity that came their way and suffered a demoralising and embarrassing defeat to a side that could barely believe their own luck.

But it showed that, in modern sport, if you stay with somebody you have a chance as the match draws to a conclusion. Ireland imploded and the Scots picked up four handy penalties.

Maybe it was more important for the team at that stage that Declan Kidney be despatched. They snuck out of Edinburgh airport in case they were arrested for impersonating a rugby team. It was their worst performance in a long, long time – that was until they played Italy in their final match.

What separates the teams today is the quality of the coaches. The performance against the All Blacks wasn't an accident. Joe Schmidt knew how to beat the All Blacks and his game plan worked to perfection. The team just weren't able to close it out.

Traditionally, Ireland play poorly after a big performance and that is just one of several landmines Ireland could step on today if they are not careful.

Just where is that added value that Schmidt brings to a team? I have always said that at international level a team of experienced professionals – alpha males – are able to organise themselves without any need of a management structure. Experienced players know how to run and organise a lineout; they know how to scrummage as an eight; they are quite capable of working out their own defensive mechanism – this is what they do week in, week out; they know how to run the ball and they know when to kick. They can do 85 per cent of team organisation and strategy themselves, it's that 15 per cent of added value where a coach makes his mark.

Players tell us that most modern coaches pay great attention to detail, but the really good coaches know which details are relevant and which details are not.

Smart coaches get their teams playing the system they want early and the players, more importantly, understand what is being asked of them. Schmidt is known to be a perfectionist: if he was married to Charlize Theron he would expect her to cook as well. Repetition of skills so that they don't break down under pressure is one of the hallmarks of his charter. In this instance practice does not make perfect – perfect practice makes perfect.

Schmidt's value comes in the pre-match and his unfailing ability to analyse correctly what the opposition will do. He is a pretty good motivator, but once the team go out onto the park there is not an awful lot he can do. His greatest asset comes at half-time. If you look at Leinster's record under Schmidt, the vast majority of his matches were won because of vastly-improved performances by his team in the second half. These were based on corrections of what the team was and wasn't doing and his ability to think on the hoof and outfox his opponents.

He is a normal guy with a Microsoft brain.

His opposite number, Scott Johnson, has smart one-liners and great fodder for the press, but he is a good distance off being an international coach.

One of Schmidt's problems is that, for him to win the Six Nations Championship, he will need as much quality as he can pack into the side. With Tommy Bowe, Donnacha Ryan, Seán O'Brien and Luke Fitzgerald that would bring the skill quality quotient up considerably. Gordon D'Arcy, too, is a loss despite Luke Marshall's burgeoning presence. The problem is that we don't have a pack that is good enough to dominate and Ireland will struggle at tight against the English, French and Welsh and won't get their own way even against the Italians.

It is not that each member of the pack is not up to international standard. I look at England's second row of Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury – a critical combination of power and athleticism and no mean aggression. The Welsh too – Luke Charteris and Alun-Wyn Jones – another good combination. We all know Paul O'Connell's undoubted abilities and his form this year has been good. I just don't think himself and Devin Toner are a good combination and I think that if this Ireland pack out-performs two or three times against stronger, more powerful packs, then that would be the extent of it.

I think Ireland will dominate Scotland, particularly at the breakdown. The introduction of Chris Henry, who has the nose of a truffle pig, will be too good at the breakdown for the Scottish back row.

If Ireland are good at the breakdown and they don't let Scotland slow the ball down, they will create enough chances to put the Scots away. They must remember that referee Craig Joubert's pet hate is not releasing in the tackle. There will be three or four penalties against both sides for this – count them. The unfortunate thing is that they had half a dozen chances last year, real chances which weren't converted, and that danger still prevails.

This Scotland side have no really outstanding players. Their midfield seems to be reasonably neutral and they rely hugely on Stuart Hogg for any kind of spark. Their halves are pretty neutral too and their back row a pale shadow of some of the real strengths that they have had over the last decade.

My outstanding memory of last year's match was the performance at number six of Rob Harley, who is not in this year's squad. He gave the impression of a player who did not know the rules of the game and got away with only conceding a couple of penalties when he had committed about 20 offences.

We will know later this afternoon about Joe Schmidt's value to the Irish team. If the strong take from the weak, and the smart take from the strong, then Ireland have a chance in this championship. They are 1/8 to win this game, I do not agree with that, but they should prevail . . . sometime in the second half.

Irish Independent