Sunday 22 September 2019

'I have real confidence this group will turn it around' - Schmidt makes convincing case for Irish recovery

Schmidt hopeful England loss is just an abberation as he looks towards Cardiff clash

Fight or flight: Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt is calling on his players to produce a response against Wales. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Fight or flight: Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt is calling on his players to produce a response against Wales. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Tuesdays at Ireland headquarters are usually a low-key affair. Yesterday had a very different feel as Joe Schmidt kept himself at the front of a ship that, from the outside, appears to be struggling to stay afloat.

Acutely aware of the storm of criticism encircling his squad, the experienced head coach thought better of sticking with the routine of sending one of his assistants out to bat and instead fronted the press conference himself two days ahead of schedule.

In doing so, he was able to move the story on towards an increasingly important battle with Wales at the Principality Stadium this Saturday where a host of returning faces will attempt to steady matters.

At once circumspect about the eight-try loss and upbeat on the prospects of turning things around, the New Zealander cut a more confident figure than he did at times during a difficult Six Nations.

Perhaps the chastening at Twickenham has clarified his thoughts.

An avid consumer of all of the noise surrounding his team, the coach is acutely aware of the criticism of his captain and the growing doubts over his team's capacity to compete in Japan next month.

It has been a trying 2019. Defeats to England and Wales damaged belief during the Six Nations and all thoughts of putting that spell behind the team came crashing down around them in Twickenham.

The loss was a record defeat to England and the worst result of the coach's tenure, but he insists he can turn things around.

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A historically successful operator with an exemplary record, he put forward a convincing case.

Over the course of his 30 minutes in front of the microphones, he went through England's scores in fine detail and no doubt the players are fully aware that what happened last week is not acceptable.

Now, he wants a response.

"It's foreign territory to us," he said. "We've never been in a situation where we've been out of a game like that before - well not in my six-and-a-half years. I'm looking forward to the players getting out there this week and next, and proving that that's an aberration that doesn't reflect us."

While describing last week's loss as "unacceptable", "flat" and "slow", Schmidt did speak about how formidable a unit England are under Eddie Jones.

His challenge is to get his side back to a place where they look formidable themselves when they take on Scotland in less than four weeks' time.

He highlighted an improvement in defensive decision-making as a key factor in improving performances, while he said he expects the set-piece to improve.

Saturday's clash with Wales, he said, is a last chance for the players to impress before he submits his squad to World Rugby.

He has scope to change things if there are any injuries in the return fixture, but this may be the big moment for a glut of players.

Asked if the message is 'nobody is safe', Schmidt demurred.

"I don't think I have to give that message. We don't operate in a safe environment," he said. "Just stand in front of Manu Tuilagi when he's running at you, a safe environment is foreign to these guys. It's an incredibly competitive environment.

"One of the things I most admire about the players I've been lucky enough to be involved with over the last six years is that, as competitive as they are in wanting to get to where they want to be, they will help whoever is alongside them as best they can even if they play the same position.

"It's been a huge strength in Irish rugby in my time the way that people have dragged other people along with them.

"Sometimes that's a risk for them, but it actually elevates the performance levels of the collective and, in the end, everyone benefits as a result of that.

"So, that collective will keep working hard. Individually, they know they're in competition with each other. We talked about Rory (Best) earlier, whether it's Rob Herring, Niall Scannell or Seán Cronin - they're all competing for three spots and there's four of them.

"That's healthy to a point. That's especially healthy in the way that they help each other and drag each other forward.

"It was great the way the lineout callers and the hookers got together and started problem-solving. I do believe you'll see solutions and adaptations over the next two weeks because our lineout traditionally has been a massive strength of our game.

"To say that suddenly after one poor performance that you need to throw things out is a bit of a knee-jerk reaction.

"I can't guarantee it's an aberration, but if you have been working with a group for six-and-a-half years and one time and one time only they let a game get away from them to that extent in offering up that much lineout ball to opposition, missing that many tackles, then I have real confidence that this group will turn this around.

"The players are fully aware of their obligation to produce a performance.

"These kind of losses come once in a blue moon, that's the biggest loss that we've had and it's not something that we're going to continue."

Prop John Ryan said: "There's a bit of ownership from the players as well, the coaches are obviously facilitators for that.

"Training the last two days has been brilliant, there's been a serious clip to it. A bit of edge to it as well.

"It's a case that we need to get out there and prove the we're a top three in the world team. That's how it is at the moment."

They fell out of that company last Saturday, but this weekend they get their first opportunity to set the record straight.

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