Saturday 23 March 2019

Neil Francis: Joe Schmidt must rethink his off-load policy to restore missing zip

'When [Joe] Schmidt was in charge of Leinster, they were the best passing team in Europe and they scored tries that other teams could only dream about'
'When [Joe] Schmidt was in charge of Leinster, they were the best passing team in Europe and they scored tries that other teams could only dream about'
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

They say win as if you are used to it, lose as if you enjoyed it for a change. Ireland have now lost two matches in a row. I doubt they find it enjoyable and I hope that run changes.

Ireland never looked like they were going to win either of those games and for most of the first half yesterday, this looked like it was going to be one of those 30 or 40-nillers.

However, Ireland stuck their courage to the sticking plate, rode their luck, and clung on in grim fashion to a point where with 60 minutes gone you would have almost fancied them to nick it. This would have been a grave injustice to England, who were by far the better team - if they had a little bit more accuracy and a greater sense of assurance in themselves they would have most certainly scored a lot more points.

The French would have been watching this match with interest - whether they are clever enough to figure out what Ireland do will be told in five weeks' time but the French must have now a little more confidence, in that after four rehearsals and two competitive Test matches Ireland have not improved to a level that you would have expected from Joe Schmidt's team. Spend time with Joe. . . and you will know. A week with Schmidt, and the team should be humming but it is not and we wait now for the dirt trekkers in the Canada game in two weeks to kick-start our aspirations.

New Zealand would have been watching yesterday's game too. The two best teams in the northern hemisphere - it would be churlish not to get a sneak preview of what to expect.

As I left Twickenham yesterday my over-riding impression of the last four weeks is that neither Ireland nor England are going to win the World Cup. England are simply not good enough and while they have an impressive array of power and some pretty good individuals in their roster, there is still that chance that they may not get out of the group. Australia and Wales may be just too clever for them. Ireland on the other hand do have the smarts and the right blend - they just need to convince themselves that they will get better.

There were 400 passes in yesterday's game. It was a full-blooded but poor quality encounter, and the calibre of all of those 400 passes told you why neither of these teams will win. Whatever about the Kiwis' or Australians' ability to contest at tight, you can never doubt their ability to throw an accurate pass. There were six or seven clear-cut opportunities yesterday, mostly English, where if the penultimate pass had gone to hand or had been accurately conveyed, the last man at the end of the sequence would have or could have scored. As it was either the ball went to ground or behind when the chance came, and that is the difference folks.

There is no magic formula. The southern hemisphere sides can pass properly and that is why they score tries when the opportunity arises.

Yesterday we watched an Ireland side pass just as poorly as their opposition. When Schmidt was in charge of Leinster, they were the best passing team in Europe and they scored tries that other teams could only dream about because of the accuracy and conviction in the way they threw the ball about. Yesterday it was galling to watch Ireland as they attempted to put width into their game. In some of their phases when they threw behind-the-line passes - sometimes two or three times in a movement - they ended up running cross-field and when the ball eventually arrived at the tramlines there was a gang of English tacklers waiting for them. There were too many players taking the ball standing and the speed of the pass was simply too slow and that is why they have not scored in their competitive games from passing movements. Ireland's try yesterday came from a very smartly rehearsed rolling/peeling maul.

George Ford had an imperfect game yesterday but recovered himself from the shocker he had played against the French. The English passing, although predictable, had an awful lot more zing in it and it and if England want to run the ball they will need Ford to mastermind that type of game for them. Certainly their back three are the most dangerous in the northern hemisphere. Mike Brown looks like he has recovered from his concussion, and Anthony Watson and Jonny May are really dangerous, with searing pace.

Central to Ireland's aspirations at this World Cup will be whether Conor Murray recovers from what looked like a concussion in the 16th minute. It is rare that I buy a Ref-link but Nigel Owens was very certain in what he said on the pitch to Chris Robshaw as England were called back after Murray connected with Joe Marler's hip. The Welsh referee stated that Murray "did not move" and the experienced official was certain that Murray was out cold. He recovered and ran off the pitch with medical staff. It is everyone's fervent hope that he was just temporarily stunned but I do not think so.

Ireland are nothing if not consistent and yet again as in the Welsh game they only off-loaded twice in the entire match. There were moments, particularly in the second half, when Ireland's ball carriers were slowly getting on top of the tightly packed English defence. There was a half-step out of the tackle and some of their runners - Jamie Heaslip and Sean O'Brien in particular - turned and there were support players that they could have popped to and on pain of death chose to take the tackle and recycle again. Maybe the difference yesterday was in the performances of Tom Wood and Robshaw. Robshaw in particular is an excellent off-loader and he is comfortable and powerful enough in the tackle to be able to ride it and give it to players running a support line, and all of his pack knows what he will do in that sort of a situation. It is incredible that Schmidt has opted for this sterile form of play. I wonder if the two players who effected those off-loads for Ireland yesterday will be reprimanded.

On the plus side, Johnny Sexton seemed to be coming into the game more and it was he more than anybody who got Ireland back in to the game from half time onwards. Dave Kearney was consistently brilliant in everything he did and from nowhere looks like he will be Ireland's first-choice winger. On the debit side Tommy Bowe had one of his worst games for Ireland, missing five of his seven tackles, and needs to rediscover himself quickly. Rob Kearney's strength in the air was sorely missed yesterday but Simon Zebo had a good game overall - apart from getting stranded from Ford's beautifully engineered cross-kick.

One of the disappointing elements of the game was the fact that both benches were cleared when the outcome of the game was still in the balance. Both sides would not do that in a tight game in a crucial match.

We await Joe Schmidt's and Ireland's response to this reversal.

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