Tuesday 17 September 2019

Jim Glennon: Ireland squad now has quantity to augment the quality

We can look forward to Joe Schmidt including a more creative running game, writes Jim Glennon

Eye-catching sparks from Stuart Olding against Georgia, serve to remind us of the quality now available to Joe Schmidt. Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Eye-catching sparks from Stuart Olding against Georgia, serve to remind us of the quality now available to Joe Schmidt. Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Jim Glennon

Before Ireland played South Africa, I expressed the view that two wins from three would be a satisfactory return.

If we are honest, there was some uncertainty over whether we would even manage two from three, such was the quality of the opposition and with a lot of injuries for Joe Schmidt and his team to contend with.

Now, with a successful series behind us, it falls to us to consider just where we stand in the overall scheme of things.

Historically the lack of depth in our small pool of international quality players has been one of our defining characteristics. It was this that led to an air of pessimism before the visit of the Springboks. That Ireland were shorn of forwards of the calibre of Cian Healy, Rory Best, Martin Moore, Nathan White, Donncha Ryan, Seán O'Brien, and backs Andrew Trimble and Dave Kearney, represented a major challenge indeed. Then, as if to compound matters, Chris Henry's withdrawal on the morning of the game due to serious illness brought an ominous tone to proceedings.

However now, enjoying the luxury of hindsight, the single most encouraging aspect of the performances for me was the development of the breadth of resources currently at our disposal. Credit where it's due here too - while the coach is undoubtedly the man pulling the strings at international level, it's those labouring behind the scenes in the talent identification and academy programmes who mould the raw materials for him.

The emergence of Dave Foley from Munster, Rhys Ruddock from Leinster, and Robbie Henshaw from Connacht; the re-introduction of Simon Zebo; the continual development of Jack McGrath; the eye-catching sparks from Stuart Olding against Georgia, they all served to remind us of the quality now available to Schmidt.

If the quality of Schmidt's work has been hyped to somewhere between wizardry and clairvoyance, we are nevertheless fortunate to have attracted a coach of his all-round quality, and particularly to have him in the top job less than a year out from a World Cup. There are players right across his team who are close to indispensable in the context of that challenge, primary among them the half-back axis of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton which has now developed into a truly world-class combination, as evidenced by the attention to which both of them were subjected by opponents in recent weeks.

The degree of abandon with which 'world-class' has been used by modern media has diminished the meaning of the term but, in this instance, its application is by no means misplaced. There is, at present, no better half-back combination in international rugby. Murray's development over the past couple of years has been quite remarkable as he revelled in the additional responsibility thrust upon him by the retirement of Ronan O'Gara. Sexton continues to play with supreme confidence, dominating games with his cranky, competitive, yet utterly composed, personality.

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While the coach tailors his tactics from game to game on a horses-for-courses basis, he is by no means prescriptive and will always leave room for instinct and innate football intelligence, which suits Sexton to a tee.

Since the win over South Africa, much debate has centred on Ireland's style of offensive play. We saw the sacrifice of expansive patterns and offloads in favour of control in tighter channels and smart targeted kicking. Schmidt, one of the great attacking innovators at club level, has shown a more pragmatic side. After the structured nature of the Six Nations win, we anticipated a more expansive approach and, while this has yet to materialise, we should have no complaints. A broader repertoire, including a more creative running game, will be an essential element of any meaningful challenge at the World Cup and we can expect this to be phased into the game plan over the course of the Six Nations. Having said that, we shouldn't forget the simple fact that, this year, Schmidt's Ireland have lost just once in 10 outings, and that to England in Twickenham.

What we have now is a highly organised, competent, clinical, and smart operation, both on and off the field. With Simon Easterby having come through his first Test series with the squad, any lack of familiarity with his new players and environment will have been dispelled, as the entire group continues to grow in confidence, depth and competition for places.

Turning the attention towards the Six Nations, we should be confident, yet mindful of the fine margins at this level. One needs only to look back at the nature of some of our recent results to underline this point. There is much work to be done, not only on our attack, but on our set-pieces too.

The last time we enjoyed an autumn clean-sweep was in 2006 and it was followed by a near clean-out in the subsequent calendar year. While welcome, success 12 months out from a World Cup ultimately means little. Schmidt's ongoing process of development and improvement must continue apace.

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