Saturday 17 March 2018

Marshall at centre of Ireland's world vision

Ulsterman's selection just the start as Schmidt looks forward to 2015

Ireland's Luke Marshall
Ireland's Luke Marshall
Ireland's Luke Marshall
David Kelly

David Kelly

AS that old jazz refrain tells us, it ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it.

Ewen McKenzie won't have realised he was paraphrasing John Toshack when he mused this week that winning isn't the only thing for his Australian side.

The former Welsh manager opined that winning all the time isn't necessarily good for a team. McKenzie tweaked the sentiment a tad.

"In Australia, winning's not enough," he said. "It's how you win, in some respects. But it's also what you do with the wins."

McKenzie is only weeks into the gig. Statistically, this could be Australia's worst ever calendar year in terms of results. Yet still, as his country's union wallows in debt and his sport languishes behind others in terms of popularity, McKenzie is seeking style and panache even when victory seems so elusive.

The World Cup is his stated destination; today's tea-time assignation is merely a designated station.

Ireland must now face up to a similar reality.

They, too, have a new coach who, in the face of mounting financial hardship and the realisation that his sport remains a minority pursuit in relative terms, must affect a broader vision.

This fixture has been sprinkled with glorious days for the Irish, but few have had meaningful long-term relevance; the promise of the Croke Park draw in 2009, securing an unbeaten calendar year for the Grand Slam champions, was frittered away in a dispiriting 2010.


The Eden Park ambush in 2011 occasioned teary-eyed celebrations from the Irish diaspora and wild acclamation back home, but, viewed through a broader prism, the victory was rendered worthless by the tame submission against Wales in the quarter-final.

Significantly, Australia have a mere four survivors from that World Cup defeat; astonishingly, Ireland have 11.

Injuries and age-profile skew the picture somewhat, but, for all the similarities between the countries, there is a vast intellectual gap in terms of how each plans for the future.

Schmidt's greatest challenge will be to radically reshape Ireland's mentality.

Of course, winning is a priority.

But, again to paraphrase McKenzie, would Ireland and its most avid supporters really learn much about themselves if they ground their way to a 9-6 win in the gathering gloaming?

Apart from a screaming hangover, probably not.

This November, with ranking points irrelevant and the IRFU's bag of yo-yos already banked, the enlightened Kiwi must lay down a ruthless marker in terms of how he intends to plot a route towards 2015.

This involves a single-minded vision in terms of style and the personnel he wishes to use in his attempts to deploy that style.

It is a world away from the restrictive, proscriptive game plan that bullied northern Europe into submission in winning the Grand Slam in 2009. This is about developing a game plan that can tackle the world's best at their own game.

Ulster's Luke Marshall slips neatly into that broad world view. He represents the future of this team; the man he replaces today, Gordon D'Arcy, represents the past.

Schmidt acknowledged as much last weekend when selecting D'Arcy to shepherd Paddy Jackson. He confirmed the opinion in assessing D'Arcy's "out of sorts" performance afterwards.

Marshall may not be the incumbent in the next World Cup – only he can decide that outcome – but you can be damn sure that, if he is not, then a player who imitates his attributes most assuredly will be.

There is a sense of the Australian about him – fearless, free-spirited and, above all, supremely talented, as he has been since developing his skills as a ball-playing out-half with Ballymena Academy.

"I remember him trying two left-footed drop goals from the 10-metre line against me," recalls ex-Methody boy Jackson.

"He didn't get them, though. You're asking if he is free-spirited – he definitely used to be."

Unfortunately, Marshall's international development was stunted; albeit there are those who cruelly suggest that repeated concussion during last year's disastrous Six Nations campaign was not entirely a bad thing.

Yet those who peered behind the curtain of that gruesome campaign will have recalled that blistering opening half-hour against Scotland when he dovetailed quite beautifully with Jackson right on the gain-line. Ireland could have wrapped up that game had the support play been as cohesive.

But he is a provider too and, although concealed for the most part, his former life as an out-half offers a hint of a second five-eighth option. Certainly it provides that peripheral vision that we can see in today's opponent, Matt Toomua.

"He can pass the ball well, he can pass short and long," offers defence coach Les Kiss.


"He has good footwork and as Gert Smal and I recognised often when we've gone up to watch Ulster play or train, he carries his body weight well.

"Luke is a good solid lad, plus his agility is nice. Usually when we talk about agility, it is in attack, but his agility in defence is very good too.

"He can actually shape his defence to handle any threat coming in a direct sense, but also, if the ball shifts wide, he can move off that channel and get into a defensive channel wider quite quickly. So, across those broad skill-sets, he's shown some promise."

His partner today will be O'Driscoll, but it is not a novel experience for either man. Declan Kidney got shoed around the park by a variety of pundits and punters, but it shouldn't be forgotten that he had installed Marshall in the wider training squad many months before deciding to give him a fling in the starting side.

O'Driscoll will not be around for the next World Cup – that is a brutal truth, no more than the realisation that D'Arcy will also be missing in 2015 – once Schmidt's grand vision is realised.

It is time for new experiences to blend with the old.

"Luke is young and he has a long way to go and a lot of experience to gain," said O'Driscoll this week. "That's one thing about Gordon – he has bucket-loads of experience.

"In my partnership with him there's an element of telepathy and understanding and body language you can read off. There's a comfort factor that I don't have with Lukey yet, so it's about building that in training.

"The more games you play together internationally the more confident you'll get. That's where we are at the moment. We're a work in progress.

"He's a very good player who will become a very, very, very good player."

Just as Conor Murray will have to reassess what is required of him by the new coach as he watches Eoin Reddan while riding pine today, so too will pretenders to the midfield thrones pay attention to Schmidt's demands.

Irish sport is too often blinkered by the scoreboard, too easily roused by the occasional slaying of Goliaths. Schmidt seeks to paint a broader canvas beyond the immediacy of the punchy Polaroid snapshot.

If his backline contribute all that is asked of them, yet Ireland conspired to lose today's game, Schmidt would not demur. Neither should anyone else.

For Marshall, as for Ireland, it is the pursuit of excellence, so often repugnant to those on the outside, which is imperative from today's exercise.

Anybody who thinks that edging Australia on a one-off basis will validate the strength of Irish international rugby is clearly missing the point.

It is not just about what happens today. It is about what happens next.

Irish Independent

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