Sunday 25 March 2018

Brent Pope: It's time to blood youngsters in the Ireland set-up

Leinster's Garry Ringrose
Leinster's Garry Ringrose

Brent Pope

Every year rugby people come up to me and say that Super Rugby, as played in the Southern Hemisphere, is “is not real rugby”. It is not like the good old-fashioned test matches, they remind me, as they hanker after sodden pitches and 9-6 scorelines.

Yes, the Super 15 is fast, often disjointed and somewhat lax with its refereeing decisions, but it is now clearly the way forward, and like it or not, the new ‘bums on seats generation’ demand a game played with speed and skill, exactly the type of game that saw the Southern Hemisphere completely dominate the Rugby World Cup last October.

As Irish coach Joe Schmidt assembled his 35-man Irish squad for training this week, he did so without the guiding hand of the recently retired Paul O Connell.

O’Connell has been ever-present in almost all the great days Schmidt has had as national coach, and while Ulster’s Rory Best is both a popular and correct choice as the man to lead his country, O’Connell is almost irreplaceable.

What a coach needs from his captain, apart from all the usual attributes, is for that player to be a link on the field for what the coach is orchestrating on the training park.

The coach can’t play the game when the whistle blows, and relies heavily on his captain to impart what he is trying to do.

Paul O'Connell

O’Connell played that role perfectly, calling all the lineouts, staying calm under pressure and giving his team confidence. He will be a huge loss to Schmidt, both tactically and emotionally.

If this new group is going to create history and win a hat-trick of championships, then they will have do it the hard way, with both France and England on the road this year. Both these teams will be aching for an Irish scalp, especially given the results of the last few years and the hangover from the last year’s World Cup.

Both of Ireland’s biggest threats have new coaches in place, and in many regards have wiped the slate clean. Schmidt will hope that new coaches, Eddie Jones in England and Guy Noves in France, will take a year or so to bed in, but that may be wishful thinking. Schmidt knows too well from personal experience that in sport a ‘new broom nearly always sweeps clean’.

From a playing point of view, last year’s World Cup showed the huge division between the styles of rugby either side of the equator. Despite the tournament being played over here, not one of the Northern Hemisphere teams made it past the quarter-finals.

Argentina showed the benefits of two seasons playing against rugby’s big three, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, which was enough for the Pumas to emerge as a totally different team.

The Argentinians, Japanese, Australia, Pacific Islanders and the All Blacks showed the Northern Hemisphere that their somewhat conservative, defence-orientated, power-and-kicking game is severely outdated.

The way forward in the modern game is all about an increased level of skill, a much more expansive game plan and an appreciation for the attributes of speed, off load and space.

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt believes the RBS 6 Nations champions may have to settle for a mid-table finish

All the Six Nations coaches, including Schmidt, need to take this on board now, and while winning another champiosnhip for Ireland is important, so too is the skill development of the new breed of players. Less of the brawn and more of the brains.

 In some quarters of the world game, the rugby unions are now experimenting with the six-point try, it shows their thinking. Should this ever take hold, then scoring tries will become even more important than ever, and despite the next World Cup being four years away, the change in terms of playing style and players to fill changed roles needs to start now.

Years ago, I was speaking to then assistant All Black coach Steve Hansen, he told me that even the All Blacks could no longer compete with the size of players that the likes of England, France and especially South Africa could now employ. He told me that the All Blacks had to look for a new breed of multi-skilled player and, more significantly, a game-plan designed to move these big, bulky teams around.

The speed and accuracy of a simple pass will always beat the best of defences, but for the past few years we have seen nearly all the teams in the Six Nations often prefer not to have the ball, opting to defend instead.

We have seen nearly all the countries over here employ ex-rugby league players as defence coaches and it has worked, but at a cost. The Northern Hemisphere game, even in France, has lost its mojo and has become too much about defence and not enough about expansive, attacking play.

It is time to break the shackles of that type of game and become less reliant on the kicking tactic, with more emphasis on the ability to move the ball from depth and with width. In reality, as long as you retain the ball, teams should be able to attack from anywhere on the park.

Hopefully, this season Schmidt will look at some of the younger players in his squad in an effort to bring them on board, preferably earlier rather than later.

I am always amazed with the criticism that Irish rugby gets for exposing younger players to the higher levels of the game, even at provincial level.

Mention made earlier this season that maybe Leinster centre Garry Ringrose may get a call-up to the national squad was in many rugby circles immediately shot down. Some rugby pundits saying that the player was far too young and needed to be wrapped in cotton wool for a while yet.

In the Southern Hemisphere, if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.

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