Wednesday 18 September 2019

Bernard Jackman: 'This Irish team will not be daunted by previous World Cup disasters'

Schmidt has developed mental strength and depth, leaving us in good stead even if he goes

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Reuters
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Reuters

Bernard Jackman

As Ireland wrapped up an outstanding 2018 with another win against the USA yesterday, today presents a great opportunity to examine why we are now ranked No 2 in the world and will probably become the No 1 ranked team during the Six Nations - before the All Blacks get to play again.

The current results and performances that we are witnessing have come about due to a clear vision and strategy from the IRFU which has been supported by investing money and time into facilities and people which combine to create high performance environments and cultures from the provinces up to the national squad.

Our player welfare management programmes can frustrate the provincial coaches at certain times, but it seems that the right balance is being found to ensure the national and provincial teams can both be more competitive than ever.

The fact that Johnny Sexton is playing better than ever into his 30s is testament to the benefits of central contracts and if Sexton can win the World Rugby Player of the Year award tonight in Monaco, which he richly deserves, it will cap an incredible year for him. He led Leinster to a European and Guinness PRO14 double and Ireland to a Grand Slam, a first series win in Australia for 39 years, before beating the All Blacks at home for the first time.

Ireland's player pool and depth chart is probably stronger than any other country at the moment and that hasn't happened by chance. Whether it was repatriating a player like Tadhg Beirne or Robin Copeland, who started in the Irish Player Pathways but made their reputations in Wales, facilitating John Cooney and Jordi Murphy to move to Ulster or Joey Carbery to Munster, or bringing Billy Burns, Will Addison and Mike Haley - three players who have been identified by the Exiles department as Irish-qualified players who can help us.

Talented players are a key ingredient in success but they need coaches who can bring the best out of them. In all the provinces it's clear that there are talented coaches and support staff who are creating the right learning environments.

Ireland's attacking play is continuing to improve and evolve. The quality of passing and the lines of running and animation and decoy lines are excellent and we can also rely on Joe Schmidt and his coaches to pull a special play out of the bag when our phase attack can't break a defence down.

When I saw the move that Jacob Stockdale scored from I knew I had seen it before but I couldn't remember when. Ireland last used it in 2015 against Scotland and Romania. Steve Hansen had said in the media before the All Blacks match that they had prepared for Joe's famous trick plays but it's unlikely that they looked back three years.

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Test matches at the highest level are won on small margins and Joe understands these better than anyone

Defence wins championships and discipline helps defence. Ireland became the first northern hemisphere team (Lions' second Test apart) to hold the All Blacks try-less since France in 1995. Given that Andy Farrell also masterminded the Lions' defensive masterclass, it's no shock that he is one of the leading contenders to replace Schmidt if he announces this week that his time in charge of the Irish team will come to an end after next year's World Cup.

Farrell is highly thought of by any player that he has coached and the most impressive part of his defensive system is how we rarely concede line-breaks and also how we have the lowest penalty concession rate of any tier-one country.

If Joe decides to leave it would be great to be able to keep Farrell, forwards coach Simon Easterby and skills and kicking coach Richie Murphy who have all benefited from his mentorship and picked up invaluable intellectual property and experience. Greg Feek has turned our scrum from an Achilles heel into a weapon and if he was to leave, Leinster scrum coach John Fogarty or Munster forwards coach Jerry Flannery would both be outstanding candidates to replace him.

Next autumn our biggest challengers to win the World Cup will be New Zealand and the Springboks. South Africa are improving rapidly under former Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus and he will have a plan and power/kicking/defence game that will suit knock-out rugby.

The All Blacks match with Ireland last week was the first time that the No 1 and No 2 ranked teams in the world have played each other since the 2015 Rugby World Cup final when the Kiwis defeated Australia. This has given the All Blacks a false sense of superiority and to go from averaging 40 points and five tries a match in 2018 to scoring only one try in the two Tests against England and Ireland will force them into an audit of their attack. The scary thought is that will only make them better by the time the World Cup in Japan starts.

They haven't been involved in enough tight matches where they learn to close games out. They will have learnt a lot from this tour and I think it was no coincidence to see Beauden Barrett kicking a drop goal in the Aviva and Twickenham given how the inability to do so cost them a win against South Africa last month.

Their defence would also benefit from the expertise of Wayne 'The Professor' Smith who retired from the All Blacks coaching staff two seasons ago but could potentially be seconded back to help them try and win a third straight Webb Ellis trophy.

I feel that this Irish side are capable of winning it and the inability of their predecessors to reach the semi-final or beyond will drive the team on rather than hinder them as they can handle pressure and have embraced each challenge put in front of them, and conquered them.

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