Saturday 24 August 2019

Alan Quinlan: The Joe Schmidt show has permeated into all four provinces and they are reaping the rewards

 

Joe Schmidt played his part in last weekend’s European ‘green sweep’ by the provinces. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt played his part in last weekend’s European ‘green sweep’ by the provinces. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

Many hands contributed to a memorable European clean sweep for the provinces last weekend but one man's fingerprints were all over the success - those of Joe Schmidt.

The Ireland head coach may not be directly working with the players in the lead-up to these European fixtures like lieutenant Andy Farrell, but the influence of Schmidt's core rugby principles was obvious across all four victories.

The New Zealander is renowned for being meticulous but the instructions he gives to his players are largely simplistic, with a heavy emphasis on being accurate and building pressure - with and without the ball.

Solid foundations are important in every walk of life and rugby is no different - so having a reliable set-piece, being efficient in the ruck, and forcing more turnovers than you concede will always put you in a good position to get a positive result.

Excelled

All four provinces excelled in those areas last weekend, successfully recycling the ball from 395 out of their combined 401 rucks, winning 41 out of their 46 lineouts and 30 of their 31 scrums.

Leinster, Munster and Connacht each forced their respective opposition into 17 turnovers, while Harlequins gave up possession 16 times against Ulster, another area of the game where the Irish sides clearly dominated.

Rory Scannell has been in impressive form for Munster. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Rory Scannell has been in impressive form for Munster. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

For a detail-obsessed man like Schmidt, these numbers will be music to his ears - bolstered by the news that Peter O'Mahony and Tadhg Furlong have agreed new deals to stay in Ireland - and it's no coincidence the provinces are excelling in these areas so soon after an international break, with his instructions still ingrained in the memory.

I say all of this, of course, with the greatest respect to the provincial coaches; they need to get an awful lot right for everything to click.

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But the rugby culture Schmidt is building at the top, and the demands he is placing on his players, is clearly trickling down to every corner of the country. It's bound to happen when so many of the provincial players have worked under Schmidt at some point.

Most of Ireland's biggest victories under Schmidt have been based on winning the collision areas, being ruthless at the breakdown and starving the opposition of possession by holding on to the ball for multiple phases, and that is a template that the provinces are largely working under, which is a major positive just seven weeks out from the Six Nations.

Recycling the ball through multiple phases is such a powerful weapon, particularly at this time of year when the game can be even more attritional than usual.

Keeping the ball in play for six or seven minutes is nothing short of exhausting for both sets of players, but from an attacking perspective to continue to get your hands and concentration right, when you're desperately trying to get oxygen in, is no mean feat.

I remember playing a trial game in 2003 at Lansdowne Road as Eddie O'Sullivan was preparing to pick a squad to travel across the world for summer Tests against Australia, Tonga and Samoa.

Being a trial match, there was plenty of needle, kicking was at a premium, and all of our lung capacities were getting a thorough test.

Fortunately, I was playing on the same team as Paul O'Connell and there was one point in the game where we got close to 30 phases before I eventually fell over the line with exhaustion, luckily with the ball still in my hands.

On the ground beside me at the bottom of the ruck was Paulie, who just mumbled, "I'm f****d". I could barely mouth a response to him after such an energy-sapping passage of play.

Hanging

I felt like I was hanging on for dear life, about to throw in the towel, but a quick look at the despondent opposition always sped up the recovery process. After all, it's a lot tougher to play without the ball, and conceding a score at the end of such a dogged defensive effort can be soul-destroying.

Leinster's ball retention last weekend was phenomenal, and ultimately proved the winning of the game.

As if going through 32 phases before Isa Nacewa's penalty to put them 11-8 ahead after an hour of intense Champions Cup rugby wasn't impressive enough, to then put a 44-phase move together 10 minutes later, which culminated in Jack Conan's try, was simply phenomenal, not to mention deflating, mentally and physically, for Exeter.

Games like that build togetherness in a team, and more specifically in a pack, like few others can.

That collective effort to constantly turn up in the line, to clear out at the ruck, and go again for your team-mates, all while running on empty, makes the score at the end that bit sweeter, something the ever-impressive Furlong alluded to afterwards.

"We retained the ball pretty well. We had to work very hard for it (the win) as a pack," Furlong explained

"To go through 44 phases on the line, and I felt all 44, believe me, if you take that clip in isolation it probably reflects the whole game.

"The forwards probably slowed down a bit and were sucking a bit of diesel towards the end, I certainly was anyway.

"To go through that many phases and hold on to the ball for that long is pleasing and in the game of rugby, it's pretty unusual."

Equally, mammoth defensive efforts can really bring a team closer together.

Some of my favourite rugby memories came from being part of brilliant collective defensive displays, a refusal to wilt in the face of relentless pressure - a strength which has become particularly striking about this Leinster team.

The unity in the defensive efforts isn't lost on Furlong, and you can be guaranteed their disciplined performance will have pleased Farrell and Schmidt with Leinster currently supplying so many international starters.

"Exeter are exceptionally good at the pick-and-go game in our 22 and some of the lads made some really important turnovers there, the energy and enthusiasm for lads to get up off the ground and make double, triple efforts was really good," Furlong added afterwards.

It wasn't a classic Leinster European win in terms of attractive rugby in the wider channels, something that has been lamented from some quarters, but I thought it was a phenomenal performance, packed with determination, intelligence and physicality.

We all know Leinster can hurt you when they move the ball but they are proving how multi-dimensional they have become, a great sign for a team looking to win trophies.

Munster also proved they are a side to be feared in this competition, and they have the best defensive record in the competition.

Matt O'Connor felt aggrieved with some of their work at the breakdown but the reality was his side were simply blown away by Munster's aggression and ferocity over the ball.

Interpret

You could probably look back at every breakdown in most games and could interpret it as somebody doing something illegal or incorrect but by and large I thought Munster's discipline was outstanding and I didn't see a cynical side to it.

I just saw great application from their forwards, and outside backs like Rory Scannell, Sam Arnold and Andrew Conway who were always willing to clear Leicester guys out, which set the tone for another famous Thomond Park victory, and saw Munster finally reach the heights of last season.

You get a great buzz out of winning matches that way. So often when a turnover is forced after a counter-ruck, you see fist-pumps and pats on the back for everyone within reach. It's a huge psychological boost for a team, particularly in these back-to-back weeks.

The breakdown is obviously an area that Leicester will be hugely disappointed with after last weekend so they're going to try and meet fire with fire tomorrow, which makes it really intriguing, and that's before you add O'Connor's post-match comments and his column in the 'Leicester Mercury' during the week calling for the game to be refereed more consistently.

All four Irish provinces will be expecting a reaction from their opponents but if they can match their intensity levels from last weekend it could prove to be another fantastic couple of days for Irish and PRO14 rugby.

These back-to-back weekends often throw up some strange results though, and for all of the positive energy that has been around this week, a couple of bad results could take air out of the balloon just as quickly.

Joe Schmidt's measured nature ensures he won't be getting ahead of himself, but the culture and template he has built for Irish rugby is helping our provinces get ahead in Europe once again.

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