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Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'O'Driscoll and Nacewa insights shine light on reasons for Ireland's sharp decline'

 

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Joe Schmidt will have a debrief before taking a well-earned break. Photo: Sportsfile

Joe Schmidt will have a debrief before taking a well-earned break. Photo: Sportsfile

Joe Schmidt will have a debrief before taking a well-earned break. Photo: Sportsfile

As the fog clears from Ireland's dreadful performance in Tokyo, the reasons for the 2019 decline of this team are beginning to become clearer.

One at a time, the voices are beginning to be heard and, while Peter O'Mahony wasn't of a mind to discuss the loss to New Zealand in Dublin Airport, it hasn't stopped the discussion from flowing everywhere else.

According to coach and captain, the reason for the fall-off was a collective decision to move Ireland from a short-term focus to a longer-term goal.

By putting all of their eggs in the semi-final basket, they stopped going through the step-by-step things that made them great in the first place.

That's one element, but another theory has crept slowly into the public domain and is beginning to gain traction.

When two disciples of Joe Schmidt with strong connections to senior men in the dressing-room make broadly similar points, it is important to pay attention.

Isa Nacewa and Brian O'Driscoll are not men with axes to grind against the outgoing head coach. Indeed, Nacewa was the one who recommended Joe Schmidt to Leinster in the first place.

They both enjoyed huge success under the New Zealander and were champions of his success with Ireland who retained faith in his ability even when the tide started to turn against him in 2019.

Having won the Grand Slam, a series in Australia and beaten the All Blacks in Dublin, Ireland were deservedly heralded as one of the favourites for this tournament.

But 2019 has been a damaging year full of low points.

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What changed? It seems O'Driscoll and Nacewa have a theory that puts meat on the idea that Schmidt failed to evolve tactically this season.

"I wonder with Stuart Lancaster coming in and his focus being very different to Joe's, did that upset the apple cart a little bit?" the former Ireland captain said on Wednesday night's Off the Ball.

"Because he was very much about unstructured play rather than Joe's focus around set-piece.

"Did that cast a few doubts into players' minds of what way they needed to train and what they needed to focus on? I wonder did that dynamic change things a little bit.

"You can't stop a coach's personal beliefs on how the game should be played. When you hear the Leinster players talk under Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster, everything is about unstructured chaos.

"The launch plays are used to get into that unstructured play and that's the vast majority of the game. Whereas Joe has been very much a set-piece orientated guy. Nearly 50pc of Ireland's scores originate from lineouts.

"Whereas conversely you look at the All Blacks and they score almost 40pc of their tries from turnover ball. Teams were able to identify that was our source of success."

O'Driscoll's comments echoed those made by Nacewa on a Sky Sports podcast last weekend, when he said: "In the 2017/18 season, once Leinster started playing an attacking brand of rugby and the majority of the Ireland squad was Leinster-based, they let a little bit of that Leinster flair infiltrate the Ireland camp.

"Joe started to go away from his tried and trusted drills and introduced a bit of what we call unstructured play, that came into Ireland camp in training and in the Six Nations and they were throwing off-loads, there was continuity to their play.

"That got them all the way to the top of the world and an unbeaten year with all the trophies.

"Post that, I hear they actually went away from that and started to take it back out and went back to the conservative approach and that's just shone through the whole World Cup and 2019.

"He went back to the tried and trusted of what worked for the last six years and I just don't think they were expressive enough."

When such respected figures put their head above the parapet and offer such insights, it's important to listen.

The Schmidt era is over after all and Irish rugby must learn the lesson of another World Cup campaign.

When one considers that Jamie Heaslip wrote in his recently published book that Ireland need to play more like Lancaster's Leinster, there seems to be something of a trend.

Schmidt will, no doubt, sit down with his long-time ally David Nucifora for a debrief before he takes a well-earned break from the game having poured his heart and soul into this job.

The question about what went wrong will continue to haunt him for some time. No doubt it will hang over his successor Andy Farrell, his players and Ireland supporters in the coming seasons.

There will be a formal review and parts of that will be released into the public domain whenever Nucifora chooses to speak again.

O'Driscoll and Nacewa have begun the process, more will follow.

The inquest might be painful for some, but Irish rugby will never learn from its mistakes if these conversations don't happen.

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