Thursday 19 September 2019

Schmidt will still find room to improve

After trawling through footage of famous victory, Ireland coach will have a few bones to pick with side

Substitute Luke McGrath attempts to block a kick from Richie Mo’unga as Ireland’s bench found themselves defending the lead late on. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Substitute Luke McGrath attempts to block a kick from Richie Mo’unga as Ireland’s bench found themselves defending the lead late on. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

The Ireland team returned to Carton House yesterday to find the place festooned with Christmas decorations.

A host of players were allowed to return to their provinces as the remainder of a curtailed squad prepared for an after-the-lord-mayor's-show affair against the United States on Saturday.

The PRO14 returns this week and the massive European back-to-back games are just around the corner.

Then it's the festive interpros, the defining rounds of the Champions Cup and before we know it the build-up to a mouth-watering opening Six Nations game against England in Dublin will be upon us.

Undermine

Joe Schmidt will do everything he can to undermine the end-of-term feeling around the place and the players involved in the game will be focused on trying to do whatever they can to break into a team that is rapidly accelerating towards next year's World Cup.

Within an hour of Wayne Barnes calling time on Ireland's first home win over the All Blacks, the head coach was already targeting improvements.

When he pored over the tape in the next 24-48 hours, he'll have found plenty of areas in which the performance could have improved.

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In truth, Ireland will feel like they could have been more comfortable in the win.

Their dominance for an hour deserved more reward on the scoreboard but a combination of their own errors and the pressure coming on from the world champions meant they were still defending a seven-point lead at the end. The late scenes, as Andy Farrell's defence repelled phase after phase of black attack, while 'The Fields of Athenry' rang out from the Aviva Stadium stands, were enhanced by the drama - but Schmidt would trade all that excitement for a ruthlessly clinical victory.

It might seem churlish to pinpoint the deficiencies in Ireland's game when so many of the players put in career-defining performances but that's exactly what Schmidt will be doing this week as he looks to reattach the players' feet to the ground after a deserved celebration.

If they are to become the world's leading side in 2019 and fulfil their potential at next year's World Cup, it is essential that they learn lessons from their wins as well as their defeats.

The All Blacks don't need to lose to improve and now that they are matching the world champions' efforts on the pitch, the men in green must also develop their capacity for improvement off it.

It's nothing new, of course, but if they had been hiding in plain sight all of this time their world-class attributes are now out in the open.

Saturday's performance puts them firmly in the frame to compete in Japan, where their route to the final may begin with a winnable pool but steps up in class and intensity thereafter.

The USA game is the first of 11 matches between now and the big kick-off and Schmidt will know what areas he needs to improve in the interim.

Ball skills

The man who achieved his stated ambition of making Leinster the best passing team in Europe in a previous incarnation won't have been happy with his team's ball protection against the All Blacks.

Too often, players were guilty of coughing up possession, either with wayward passes or lapses in concentration.

Rory Best lost the ball in contact and threw a pass to no one, Garry Ringrose did the same, and Peter O'Mahony dropped a ball early in the second half.

The All Blacks' famed skills let them down at various moments but Ireland won't look at their opponents' flaws as an excuse for their own errors and will be drilling focus on the ball at training this week.

Decision-making

Decision-making is another issue that could come up for review when the leadership group get together this week.

Certainly, Johnny Sexton seemed a little perturbed when Rory Best pointed to the posts when Ireland had New Zealand on the rack late in the first half and they'll know that the 9-6 lead they took into half-time was well below what their dominance deserved.

If the same penalty presents itself in a World Cup game, you'd wonder if the skipper would back his pack to prepare for a scrum in order to ram home the advantage they were enjoying at that time.

Sixteen points was enough in good conditions on Saturday but nine times out of 10 it would fall short against the All Blacks and the world's other best teams.

Bench impact

Given the ferocious pace it was played at, Saturday's game can't have been easy to come into cold but New Zealand's bench had a greater influence than Ireland's.

With the lineout brains trust off the pitch, the combination of Seán Cronin and Iain Henderson struggled to secure possession at key moments.

That is partly to blame for the fact that Ireland were left to protect a lead for the last 30 minutes, defying the oft-repeated notion that you have to keep playing against New Zealand.

Tired bodies were a factor and Luke McGrath - who had a good game -was clearly instructed to play for territory, but the subs found themselves making tackles and defending for the majority of their time on the pitch rather making an attacking impact.

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