Thursday 18 January 2018

Trevor Hogan: Hunger to improve could make this a real watershed

O'Connell-led drive and humility ensure victory over Springboks will not be a flash in the pan

Ireland captain Paul O'Connell in action during the captain's run ahead of their Autumn International match against South Africa
Ireland captain Paul O'Connell in action during the captain's run ahead of their Autumn International match against South Africa

Trevor Hogan

Rhys Ruddock woke last Saturday, thinking about his place on the bench. By breakfast, he found out he would be starting the biggest game of his life, in a position he hadn't played in for almost two years.

Hours later one sequence of play from the opening period, involving the young flanker, signals why Irish rugby could be about to nail down the level of consistency it has been seeking for years.

With just a little over nine minutes gone, Springbok full-back Willie le Roux takes the ball in open space from out-half Handre Pollard, inside the Irish half. Using one of his electric sidesteps, it seems this is the moment where we will see if Ireland are able to cope.

Robbie Henshaw is suddenly dragged out of his channel because of the danger Le Roux poses. Then, Jan Serfontein cuts sharply back on a switch and it looks like Ireland have been cut open.

However, Ruddock is there, having moved across into a prime position to chop down Serfontein and close the threat.


Les Kiss, Ireland's defence coach, is great at coming up with terminology to help players remember their roles.

One such term is to 'hunt' - a word that captures the way a player works into a position after the ball has been passed out of their channel. The role is crucial for any openside flanker, especially off the base of a scrum or the back of a lineout.

Against a side like the Springboks, 'hunting' from the inside is also vitally important for all players in open play.

Here, Ruddock who, hours earlier, was contemplating a 20-minute impact role from the bench, now sets the tone to all those around him, by hunting down Serfontein in the Springboks' first real danger moment. Not content with simply getting his opportunity, Ruddock imposed himself on this game from the outset.

This weekend against Georgia, potentially Ian Madigan, Ian Keatley, Felix Jones and Dave Kilcoyne will be in a similar position to Ruddock.

Regardless of the public perception about the Georgians, these players will be judged on whether they can impose themselves from the off and improve on the accuracy and aggression of last week.

As has been expressed by the players themselves, it won't be good enough just to match last Saturday. They have to be better.

Owing to the expectation within the public of a resounding win on Sunday, Georgia present a special challenge for the Irish players' preparation. This is complicated further by the sheer size and physicality the Georgians possess.

Humility, though, pervades the Ireland squad and they would never allow complacency creep in. This is reflected in the array of characters in the squad from Ruddock, Sean Cronin, Peter O'Mahony, Rory Best, Mike Ross and Jack McGrath, right through to Rob Kearney.

But it is particularly embodied in the captaincy of Paul O'Connell. O'Connell's immediate response in the aftermath of last week's massive win was to take personal responsibility for inaccuracies in lineout calling, and to express extreme disappointment at the performance of the scrum.

This is the mindset of a player always driving to get better.

When he was a 20-year-old after playing a trial game with the Ireland U-21s, I remember hearing what O'Connell told the prop he had been scrummaging behind, straight after the game: "Sorry about that, I didn't give you enough today. . . it wasn't good enough from me."

Such admissions from second-rows, of any age, are rare. They are even more unheard of among 20-year-olds, eager to impress at trial matches. Yet here was a sign of a brutal honesty and a relentless drive to improve that is at the core of what makes O'Connell one of Ireland's greatest ever players.

For over a decade, his determination has shaped all those he has played and trained with. He will have a huge legacy in Munster but the benefit of having Leinster, Ulster and Connacht players exposed to O'Connell during international windows is immeasurable.

You can see O'Connell's influence in Ruddock's desire to set the tempo against South Africa. It is clear in the McGrath's 17 tackles, in Henshaw's and O'Mahony's energy and aggression. It was there in Jones' impact when he came on, winning a crucial poach in the closing stages.

O'Connell's emotions and approach filter through the entire squad. Ross, despite Ireland's biggest win over a southern hemisphere side in years, spoke of his frustration and a desire to put things right.

This relentless hunger to get better will be the key to providing the consistency that Irish rugby yearns for.

Too often in the past big wins were hailed as watershed moments. This time, though, all the comment from the team is about aspects the players didn't get right and what they need to improve for against Georgia.

It is likely that O'Connell will be rested this week, but in any case, the players, as with Ruddock last Saturday, will arrive on the pitch with his focus ingrained in their mindset.

Schmidt would never allow anything less. Regardless of the big names that may be rested, the 23 for this weekend will be given his undivided attention. They are all that counts.

One of Schmidt's great strengths is an ability to keep an entire squad guessing by transferring his energy purely into those available for him. Those rested or injured will have an uneasy few days wondering whether they will get back in. This creates an atmosphere whereby all players earn their opportunity, irrespective of what happened before.

As even Brian O'Driscoll stated this week about Schmidt, "with Joe, you never really knew whether he rated you or not."

For those getting their opportunity on Sunday, this is their chance to make Schmidt rate them and be part of a ceaseless journey for perfection.

Irish Independent

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