Ruaidhri O'Connor: What changed after Joe Schmidt's 'year zero'
The crushing Cardiff defeat to Argentina three years ago altered the course of this generation of Irish rugby players and coaching staff. Rúaidhrí O'Connor analyses how the are now reaping the benefits
In some senses, the healing is superficial and the wound is still there, as raw as ever. Only a victory in next year's World Cup quarter-final will finally allow Ireland coach Joe Schmidt to move on from the worst day he has endured in the job to date.
At the end of Thursday's press conference, the New Zealander was asked how the team and squad are different now from the squad that faced into that last-eight clash in Cardiff in October 2015, a loss that was effectively 'year zero' for this current crop of players and management.
His answer was almost five minutes long and ran to 618 words, beginning with a reminder of the loss in experience that his team suffered in the build-up to the game when they lost "colossus" Paul O'Connell as well as Peter O'Mahony, Jared Payne and Johnny Sexton to injury and Seán O'Brien to suspension.
Sexton's late withdrawal meant Ian Madigan did not have much time to train with the team, while the loss of so many leaders led to a hesitant performance.
Argentina gave one of their all-time great performances, but Ireland helped them along the way; their aerial work was poor, their scrum malfunctioned early on and they were bullied at the ruck as they lost front-up collisions.
That meant when the Pumas spread the ball wide, the retreating line was slow to get off the mark and it led to the wingers being isolated on the edges.
Luke Fitzgerald led a rally that handed Madigan a chance to put the team in front before the hour-mark, but after he missed the wind went out of Ireland's sails and the blue-and-white wave resumed its course towards the semi-finals.
It would be no surprise to hear that when Schmidt closes his eyes he still hears the singing from the Argentinian dressing-room that echoed around the bowels of the Millennium Stadium.
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Whatever introspection the coach does, he doesn't publicly discuss his own role in the team's failings that week.
But since that day, his decisions have been rooted in a desire to improve the game-plan and deepen the squad.
He has stated several times that no team could sustain the amount of damage that his did on that fateful week.
If New Zealand had lost Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma'a Nonu, Brodie Retallick and Jerome Kaino they would have struggled equally.
O'Connell retired after the World Cup and over the subsequent three years he's been joined by seven of the match-day squad. Three others are exiled in France or England.
So, a natural rebuilding job had to be done. Schmidt has used 77 players in the 32 games since, handing out 36 debuts.
The policy of only picking Irish-based players hardened, the IRFU pushed for more player movement within the provinces and clamped down on overseas signings.
Still, it was a slow-burner. The season that followed the World Cup was a dreadful one for Irish rugby, with none of the provinces getting out of their Champions Cup pools, while Ireland delivered their worst Six Nations campaign under Schmidt.
However, they finished with a competitive display in South Africa with a severely depleted squad and the coach committed until 2019 - signalling his desire to wash the Argentina loss from his system.
By then, Andy Farrell had come on board as defence coach, adding vicious line-speed and a strong voice to the set-up. As well as being able to rally the troops, he is strong enough to challenge the head coach. Schmidt was slowly, but surely, deepening the squad and when he left O'Mahony and O'Brien in Dublin and went and beat the All Blacks for the first time in Chicago without them, there were signs he was on to a winner.
They have developed a better running game in the years since the World Cup and while they retain good kicking options, they invariably try and keep the ball in hand when they can.
"If you were to look at teams, a lot of teams don't play in their own half or even in their own 22," Keith Earls said.
"We back ourselves now, we back our skill-set and our decision-making to play from anywhere; to try and keep teams on their toes so that they can't (drop players) into the backfield early, because we'll run it. If they get high, we can easily kick it. We've a better balance."
That balanced attack flourished last season as Ireland stormed to Schmidt's first Grand Slam which finished with a stunning performance away to England at Twickenham.
Central to that campaiogn were a group of prospects who reached the 2016 U-20 World Cup final and were fast-tracked into the senior set-up like James Ryan, Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Porter - with 2017 flier Jordan Larmour joining them.
With a gnarled old guard being challenged by these young tyros, Schmidt had found the right balance.
"He hasn't reinvented the wheel. Fellas are getting older, experienced, and are starting to take the reins as well," Earls added.
"The depth thing was massive and it was out of our hands at the World Cup, obviously, and we still could have beaten Argentina in that quarter-final. But we lacked a bit of experience, we lost a lot of our leaders. Whereas now, Nos 1 to 15, 1-23 or 1-31, they can all lead. Fellas are more mature now, as well.
"It's phenomenal. A couple of years ago, I hadn't played for four or five weeks and I ended up starting against South Africa. If it was nowadays, you've two or three fellas who can easily slot in. You wouldn't even get in the squad, never mind the team.
"The last World Cup, that's what got us, we lost a lot of players, but now we have four or five fellas who could easily come in in any position.
"You saw it in the Six Nations when Robbie (Henshaw) got injured, then Chris (Farrell) and all of a sudden Garry Ringrose is playing... it's credit to the coaches, to the players."
Last summer, Ireland lost their captain on the eve of the summer tour of Australia but barely batted an eyelid as they secured a series win.
Conor Murray is set to miss the game against Argentina and next week's clash with the All Blacks and people still expect big performances.
"Joe, as Joe does, he's learned from the lessons," Rory Best said. "Not necessarily mistakes, we just got quite lucky in the cycle leading into 2015 because we didn't get as many injuries so we didn't need to turn the squad over as much.
"We've had a lot of injuries in this cycle at various times but we've also rotated players, given guys opportunities and guys have stood up.
"There are more players coming through, putting their hand up. We have more depth and we feel if you took the spine of the team out, as happened in 2015, we could cope better.
"Having said that, in 2015, the way Argentina played that day - would it have made a difference? We're only speculating to say it would, they'd obviously say it wouldn't."
The last three years have been all about making sure the glass ceiling that remained intact that day is shattered next year.
From there to here: The players who survived after Millennium mauling
1. Jamie Heaslip
Then: Captain and No 8
Now: Suffered a back injury in the warm-up to the 2017 Six Nations meeting with England and never played again, officially retiring in February this year. Now has a number of business interests and is a pundit for Channel 4.
Caps since last RWC: 15
2. Mike Ross
Then: Tighthead prop
Now: Continued with Ireland until winning his final cap in the defeat to South Africa at the end of the 2016 tour, while he soldiered on for another year with Leinster before retiring. Kept playing for Malahide and coached the Ireland women’s team’s scrum while working in the tech industry. Recently released his autobiography.
Caps since last RWC: 5
3. Rory Best
Then: Vice-captain and hooker
Now: Named captain of the team after the World Cup and set to lead the team for the 27th time this evening. Now 36, he has led the team to a Grand Slam, a first victory over the All Blacks and a first win over the Springboks in South Africa.
Caps since last RWC: 22
4. Cian Healy
Then: Starting loosehead prop
Now: Was not firing on all cylinders in 2015 but got the nod for the last-eight clash. Now he is in the form of his life and is one of the best players in his position in the world.
Caps since last RWC: 25
5. Tommy Bowe
Then: Starting winger
Now: Bowe was forced off with a serious knee injury early in the game and missed the subsequent season. Only played twice more for Ireland and finished his career with Ulster at the end of last season. Now presenting eir Sport’s coverage, runs a schools rugby competition and has a fashion line.
Caps since last RWC: 2
6. Jordi Murphy
Then: Starting blindside flanker
Now: Moved to Ulster at the end of last season after starting the Champions Cup final for his native Leinster. Came off the bench against Italy last weekend, but not involved in tonight’s match-day squad.
Caps since last RWC: 10
7. Devin Toner
Then: Starting second-row
Now: On the bench tonight, but still very much one of the leading lights in the Leinster and Irish packs and producing excellent performances in both jerseys at 33. The player Schmidt has capped most since the last World Cup.
Caps since RWC: 30
8. Rob Kearney
Then: Starting full-back
Now: Still first-choice No 15, but a shoulder injury has handed one of the next generation an opportunity in Jordan Larmour. Endured some difficult days with injury since Cardiff, but has bounced back and enjoyed a fine 12 months.
Caps since RWC: 19
9. Dave Kearney
Then: Starting winger
Now: One of the most-used players at the 2015 World Cup, Kearney endured a difficult day on the wing and has only played for Ireland three times since as a combination of injury, form and the rise of a new generation squeezed him out of the picture.
Caps since RWC: 3
10. Chris Henry
Then: Starting openside flanker
Now: Retired on Tuesday after an injury-hit period. Henry never featured for Ireland again after a disappointing performance in Cardiff. Played on with Ulster, but struggled to hit the heights that saw him help the country to the 2014 Six Nations as a starter.
Caps since RWC: 0
11. Jack McGrath
Then: Replacement loosehead prop
Now: Back on the bench after a period of ascendancy that saw him earn a place on the 2017 Lions tour, where he was a replacement in all three Tests. Now an important member of the match-day squad at Leinster and Ireland.
Caps since RWC: 26
12. Conor Murray
Then: Starting scrum-half
Now: Currently injured, but a key man in Schmidt’s set-up who is celebrating a lucrative new deal that will see him remain at Munster until 2022. Arguably the best scrum-half in the world.
Caps since RWC: 25
13. Keith Earls
Then: Starting outside centre
Now: Has become a central figure in this Ireland team and a quiet but effective leader behind the scenes. Recently penned a new deal, starts on the wing this evening and has not started in midfield for Ireland since 2015.
Caps since RWC: 24
14. Robbie Henshaw
Then: Starting inside centre
Now: A central figure in the Irish midfield for some time, Henshaw moved to Leinster in 2016 after helping Connacht to win the PRO12 title and is a key man in blue. Starts at outside centre tonight.
15. Donnacha Ryan
Then: Replacement second-row
Now: Remained a front-line Irish player until he moved to Racing 92 in France in 2017 where he was a leading light in their run to the Champions Cup final last season.
Caps since RWC: 13
16. Ian Madigan
Then: Starting out-half
Now: Remained in Ireland for another year, winning five caps, but left for Bordeaux Begles in 2016 and hasn’t played for the national team since. Left France for Bristol after one season and is now their starting No 10 having helped Pat Lam’s team to promotion.
Caps since RWC: 5
17. Eoin Reddan
Then: Replacement scrum-half
Now: Retired after the 2016 summer tour to South Africa to take up a position in aircraft leasing. Also a pundit who regularly appears on Irish radio.
Caps since RWC: 3
18. Nathan White
Then: Replacement tighthead prop
Now: The Connacht prop retired in 2016 due to concussion and returned to his native New Zealand where he recently assisted Jono Gibbes as forwards coach at Waikato in the Mitre 10 Cup.
Caps since RWC: 5
19. Iain Henderson
Then: Starting second-row
Now: Still in position as he and James Ryan start tonight’s game as the firm first-choice pairing. Henderson was one of the stars of last year’s Six Nations win and was awarded a central contract last season.
Caps since RWC: 16
20. Richardt Strauss
Then: Replacement hooker
Now: Retired at the end of last season after enduring a torrid time with injuries and returned to South Africa.
Caps since RWC: 4
21. Luke Fitzgerald
Then: Replacement back three
Now: Retired in 2016 after a suffering a neck injury and now hosts The Left Wing podcast on independent.ie. He is also an analyst with eir Sport and works for AIB.
Caps since RWC: 0
22. Paddy Jackson
Then: Replacement out-half
Now: Was in line to be Johnny Sexton’s back-up out-half for next year’s World Cup until he stood trial on rape charges last year. Was found not guilty, but the IRFU revoked his contract in the aftermath of the case and he now plays for Perpignan in the French Top 14 and is not considered for Ireland.
Caps since RWC: 12
23. Rhys Ruddock
Then: Replacement back-row
Now: Captained Ireland on the summer tour of 2017 and again last weekend, but is behind Peter O’Mahony in the pecking order in the back-row. A leading light for Leinster.
Caps since RWC: 14