Friday 15 November 2019

Schmidt will demand Ireland's best get even better

Only days after wining the Six Nations, Ireland coach Joe Schmidt is already planning for next year's tournament
Only days after wining the Six Nations, Ireland coach Joe Schmidt is already planning for next year's tournament
Stephen Ferris (right) leaves the field with team-mate Sean Doyle after Ulster's game against Scarlets at Ravenhill last weekend. The flanker is due to start for Ulster against Edinburgh tonight

Trevor Hogan

In the aftermath of Manchester United's treble-winning season of 1998/99, Roy Keane sensed that something wasn't right within the squad.

Writing in his autobiography, he said he noticed that, following the Champions League victory, "a handful of players told the press that after this they didn't care if they never won another trophy ... Well, what the f**k are we going to do next year? Is that it? We've made history, now we pack it in? Don't care if you don't win another trophy? Jesus. Start thinking like that and you won't win another trophy."

Though they still won the Premiership the following season, Keane had accurately identified the complacency creeping into his team. It would take them until 2008 to reach the European Cup final again.

It won't take this Irish rugby squad nine years to reach another Six Nations decider. In fact it won't take them as long as the five years it took since their last championship win in 2009. It is difficult to even foresee a period in the next few seasons where Ireland won't be serious contenders.

A big reason for this, in contrast to Keane's experience at Manchester United, is that there is no sense of self-satisfaction seeping into the Ireland players or management.


Speaking on the 'Second Captains' show on RTE this week, Joe Schmidt illustrated the approach. He said if Ireland reproduce their performances from this Six Nations, they will probably finish third next season: "You've just got to keep on getting better, you can never allow yourself to say that was good enough."

Despite Irish rugby being in the remarkable position of Six Nations champions, with three provinces in the quarter-finals of the European Cup, and those same teams almost 10 points clear of everyone else in the Pro12, there is no sense anyone in the Irish camp feels they are "good enough".

Schmidt's openness in interviews is refreshing, especially the recreation of his speech to the squad about Brian O'Driscoll's final Ireland game, giving a rare insight into an international side's last-minute preparations.

But nearly more revealing was his attitude in looking beyond this year's Six Nations, days after clinching the title, towards how they can win it next season.

Importantly, the bulk of players share this constant desire to improve and do more. They have shown, particularly at provincial level, that they have the necessary hunger for repeat success, with Leinster winning three Heineken Cups in four years and, before that, Munster winning two titles in three years.

The drive to get better was also evident in the immediate aftermath of the Paris win, when one of Paul O'Connell's first thoughts was to express disappointment at the manner Ireland closed out the final 10 minutes.

Undoubtedly, Ireland executed poorly in certain aspects of those last plays – for example getting turned over in two vital scrums, and the hesitation at the breakdown that allowed Sebastien Vahaamahina to win a big penalty from Iain Henderson's 77th-minute carry.

But Ireland also showed crucial composure in these closing stages, particularly defensively when Dave Kearney shot up to pressurise Pascal Pape into making a forward pass.

Also, in the last seconds, Chris Henry and Devin Toner, rather than risk going low with a chop tackle and a turnover on the floor that could have resulted in a penalty, instead opted for what turned out to be the game-winning choke tackle.

Yet still, even in the middle of a historic victory, O'Connell's comments showed the constant awareness of where and how Ireland can improve.

One important aspect that can be looked at is to transfer the attacking composure they have consistently shown in the opposition '22' into other areas of the pitch and at other times during matches.

In the 'red zone' Ireland have generally been lethal in creating and taking chances.

However, in the two pivotal away games against England and France, once Ireland opened up significant leads, they were unable to maintain the ruthlessness necessary to hold on to them. Against England, after 55 minutes, Ireland were 10-3 up before conceding a penalty which saw the advantage reduced to four points. Then a lapse in defensive shape and space allowed Danny Care to score his all-important try.

Similarly, in Paris, Ireland were 22-13 ahead with 58 minutes gone when a fractured kick chase allowed Yoann Huget to make massive ground, giving France the territory and momentum for Dimitri Szarzewski's try.

If Schmidt and Les Kiss can hone the Irish ability to hold onto their shape once the team has got in front, then Ireland will have gone a long way to retaining the trophy next year.

The other big challenge will be for Ireland to keep their attacking strategy in the opposition '22'. Ireland are so efficient in this area of the field and a lot of it comes down to Schmidt's emphasis on individual roles off set-piece, as well as the detail of the ball carrier at the breakdown. It is a result of some of the fundamental drills Schmidt uses in training sessions.

One such drill, known as the 'killer', involves repeated efforts of 2-3 minutes whereby the attack will look to break down a defence of 12-15 pads, all set inside the '22'.

The defenders on the pads have a licence to plough through the ruck, forcing the attackers to protect the breakdown at all costs and ensure the ball carrier dominates the contact. It is a lung-bursting exercise that comes close to recreating match intensity.

The drill breeds an attacking urgency, primarily with runners off the scrum-half, creating a hunger in an area of the field where defences can have the upper hand due to their increased line-speed so close to their own line.

The results of this attacking approach have been clear throughout the championship as Ireland consistently upped their intensity in this part of the field, none more so than in their shape and accuracy in the lead up to Johnny Sexton's first try in Paris. Retaining this efficiency will be the bedrock of future Irish success.

In the short-term, Schmidt's attention turns to the provinces and to some key questions around the outside-centre position. There is a long list of contenders to take over from O'Driscoll, from Robbie Henshaw to Luke Fitzgerald to Jared Payne, Darren Cave and Fergus McFadden.

It's hugely encouraging to see McFadden getting a shot at No 13 tonight. It would also be great to see Fitzgerald get an opportunity in that centre role in the coming weeks. Fitzgerald is one of the few players in world rugby who could recreate some of O'Driscoll's attacking footwork.

The task for Schmidt will be to assess how all these candidates perform in the coming weeks with a view to seeing who will be in pole position come the tour to Argentina. Whoever it will be knows that nothing short of continual improvement will be accepted in the Irish environment.


Great to see Ferris make explosive comeback

One other bit of news last week that will facilitate Joe Schmidt's drive to improve the Irish side was the remarkable comeback of Stephen Ferris for Ulster, for whom he starts tonight against Edinburgh.

It was the manner of Ferris's phenomenal impact that will give most encouragement to Irish rugby fans and management alike. For Ferris to be as sharp and as explosive as he was after a total of 16 months out of the game was an amazing achievement.

Most forwards would take two or three games to get back up to match sharpness, but Ferris appeared to be his old powerful self right from his very first impact on the game.

When he crashed into Scarlets winger Kristian Phillips, driving him back almost 15 metres, the BBC commentator captured it perfectly, saying he had "a 16-month run-up into that tackle."

Aside from that hit, Ferris looked dynamic and potent in the loose, accelerating sharply onto some big-ball carries.

In a week when the talented centre Kyle Tonetti was sadly forced to retire from the game after a long-standing ankle injury and doubts continue over whether Craig Clarke will be able to return from his serious concussion, it serves to highlight the achievement of Ferris and the Ulster medical staff that he has come back in such outstanding condition.

Irish Independent

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