Monday 11 December 2017

Ruaidhri O'Connor: Schmidt keeps feet firmly on ground

Ireland 27 Australia 24

Garry Ringrose stretches across the line to score Ireland’s second try despite the tackle of Dean Mumm. Photo by John Dickson/Sportsfile
Garry Ringrose stretches across the line to score Ireland’s second try despite the tackle of Dean Mumm. Photo by John Dickson/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Joe Schmidt would concede that Ireland do indeed want their Six Nations title back, but there were no promises or talk of Grand Slams from the head coach in the aftermath of a November to remember.

His team had just completed a remarkable hat-trick of wins over the traditional Southern Hemisphere giants in remarkable circumstances and perhaps the coaching challenge that had faced him after losing three starting backs before the second-half got underway against Australia was the reason he wasn't keen to draw a line under 2016 just yet.

Joey Carbery gives the Australians the slip during the second-half of Saturday’s clash at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile
Joey Carbery gives the Australians the slip during the second-half of Saturday’s clash at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile

The Wallabies fumed at the referee and lamented their own inaccuracies as they left Dublin knowing that they'd the chance of a rare Grand Slam tour behind them.

While the coach talked up Italy's form hours after they'd lost to Tonga, the rest of the Aviva Stadium dared to dream of March 18; the day England come to town for the final game of the Championship.

The team take it one game at a time, but there's no obligation on fans to follow their lead. Of all of the six competing nations, Ireland have learned the most since last year's tournament.

Over the course of an occasionally difficult 2016, Schmidt has handed out 18 new caps and come away with a 50pc win record. Crucially, three of those victories have come against New Zealand, South Africa away and Australia in adverse circumstances.

Simon Zebo, left, and Garry Ringrose congratulate their captain Rory Best. Photo: Sportsfile
Simon Zebo, left, and Garry Ringrose congratulate their captain Rory Best. Photo: Sportsfile

Eddie Jones' Six Nations champions extended their winning-run to 12 with victory over Argentina and remain the favourites to retain their title, but Ireland are in a far better place than they were a year ago.

"Certainly, everyone in our group wants the title but you want the title every year," Schmidt said of reclaiming the trophy they won in 2014 and 2015, before heaping praise on his rivals.

Immersed

"I've no doubt that England aren't that keen to give it up either. They're on a tour de force at the moment. They really look incredibly powerful across all positions with a degree of depth I'm not sure we can ever quite get to.

"For us it is just about rolling up our sleeves.

"I probably haven't been thinking about any of the Six Nations because you kind of get immersed from week to week particularly when you are playing teams of the quality of the All Blacks and the Wallabies.

"I certainly hope (we're better equipped), but you can control the circumstances between now and then, right now I think we are better equipped but when we get to (the opening game against) Scotland I am not sure what the injury situation will be.

"Sometimes you are affected by the confidence of European form or Pro12 form, the provincial players that come in and make up the side, so two months is a long gap and so for us you get the players for probably about three or four trainings and a pre-week to get three trainings really and a match-week and then you are full in so there is not a lot of time to gel everyone back together after a couple of months apart."

Schmidt can downplay expectations all he likes, but there is real weight behind the belief that his Ireland team can achieve something special in the spring.

For centurion Rory Best, who marked his 100th cap with an excellent performance, it is about building on the success of November and taking this form into spring.

"These days are for when you retire or at the end of the season when you look back," he said.

"For us, it's all about pushing on to the next thing, it's about consistently backing it up. To do that, we have to look back to see what we can improve on and then look forward to the next thing that's the Six Nations.

"We know we have to keep improving, you look at how strong Scotland were in the autumn, Wales had a good win today, England are in phenomenal form… so we meet at Christmas to take a look back and we know we'll have to get better."

Ireland were superb in the first-half on Saturday, dominating possession and territory despite a disruptive build-up and the absence of key names, but for all the ball they couldn't quite get away on the scoreboard.

When Jared Payne remained in the dressing-room at half-time, joining Rob Kearney and Andrew Trimble who had already left the arena, the 10-point lead looked far from enough.

So it came to pass that two tries and a few chances later, Schmidt's Ireland looked gone as Sefanaia Naivalu crossed for a try with his first touch on 59 minutes. Bernard Foley added a conversion and a penalty and with Australia 24-20 up, it looked a matter of how much Michael Cheika's men would win by.

Rory Best gathered his men under the posts and Schmidt prepared Peter O'Mahony for the arena. The Munster captain didn't let him down.

From the kick-off, Simon Zebo met Michael Hooper well behind the gain-line in what proved the turning point of the game. Ireland pinned Australia back, O'Mahony carried like a man possessed and eventually Zebo sent Keith Earls over.

From there, they managed to see it home with the likes of Garry Ringrose, Josh van der Flier, Finlay Bealham and Ultan Dillane to the fore. Sean Cronin was nerveless out of touch, Kieran Marmion chased everything on the wing.

Australia lacked composure and had legitimate reason to complain about referee Jerome Garces, but that's not for Ireland to worry about.

They built a 17-0 lead and it should have been more. Iain Henderson crossed for the first after Earls latched on to a superb Zebo chip and found the second-row, before Ringrose channelled his inner Brian O'Driscoll for the second.

Jackson brought his kicking boots, but they couldn't quite ram home their advantage and a superbly worked Dane Haylett-Petty score narrowed the gap at half-time.

Injuries meant that the backline that started the second half was: Carbery (2 caps); Marmion (8), Earls (53), Ringrose (2), Zebo (27); Jackson (18), Murray (51). Four of them were out of position.

Unsurprisingly, the Australians scented blood and went for the jugular, Tevita Kuridrani and Naivalu scored and the game looked over.

Instead of celebrating another win, however, Cheika was left complaining about the referee. Another coach left flummoxed by the Schmidt machine after losing the penalty count 13-3. The count in the three games against New Zealand and Australia this month came out at 39-11 in Ireland's favour.

So, one former Leinster coach picks up his quill and pens a letter of complaint to Alain Rolland, while Schmidt can reflect on a memorable month.

His ruthless streak remains strong, however.

After talking Best up as a potential man of the match on the skipper's special day, he still couldn't let the 34-year-old off the hook when asked about a particularly good tackle he'd made.

"The first try he will be disappointed he did not make that one," he replied. "So there is always two sides to the coin."

It was uncharitable, but it's what drives this Ireland team on to new heights.

Roll on the Six Nations.

IRELAND -- R Kearney (S Zebo 12); A Trimble (J Carbery 31), J Payne (K Marmion h-t), G Ringrose, K Earls; P Jackson, C Murray; J McGrath (C H ealy 61), R Best (S Cronin 76), T Furlong (F Bealham 71), I Henderson (U Dillane 56), D Toner, CJ Stander, J van der Flier, J Heaslip (P O'Mahony 61).
AUSTRALIA -- I Folau; D Haylett-Petty, T Kuridrani, R Hodge (Q Cooper 80), H Speight (S Naivalu 56); B Foley, W Genia; S Sio (J Slipper 68), S Moore (capt) (T Latu 76), S Kepu (A Alaalatoa 68), R Arnold (K Douglas h-t), R Simmons (S McMahon 68), D Mumm) M Hooper, D Pocock.
Referee: J Garces (France).

Irish Independent

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