Saturday 16 December 2017

An ideal way to drown out the doubters

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire.
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire.
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

At a press conference in Carton House last week we had what you might call an agenda changer. Well removed from the daily diet of who's fit and who isn't - the usual stodge - came a question about Joe Schmidt's contract.

When last year he signed the extension that will take him to the end of the 2016/'17 season the coach was struggling to walk down the street for well-wishers throwing themselves at his feet. That group has dwindled. And alongside them has emerged a vocal band, disenchanted by the twin failures of falling short in the World Cup and falling out of the Six Nations before we got to the halfway point.

The timing of this issue is intriguing, for it has changed the agenda from one of questioning the coach's mojo to praying he signs on again beyond next year. You might have thought this to be clever manipulation of the media by the IRFU; rather it was a genuine question prompted by how Schmidt might keep the players tuned in if there is no question of him hanging around.

Schmidt likes to see everything coming over the hill so he can draw a bead on it. So he was rattled by this question popping out of the long grass in front of him. Coaches of his calibre are good at thinking on their feet, so he did that. When afterwards however he was asking his PR man where the hell that had come from, he might have easily considered it a lucky break.

In the context of yesterday at Aviva Stadium it might have mattered more had the Scots managed to kick on after closing the gap in the second half to eight points, with Richie Gray's try. Even so, Schmidt will come away from the campaign in one piece.

For many Ireland fans the sole reference point for yesterday was the campaign closer against Scotland at the same stage last season. If so, it was a depressing experience, slipping from top to mid-table - but an unreal one, for when the teams went into the traps in late January you wouldn't have seen a queue outside the bookies of those forecasting a treble.

The combination of Paul O'Connell's retirement, and the string of injuries that robbed the team of a first-choice front five, should have put the performance against Wales in a higher category. A week later we went to a sodden Paris and thought for most of the game that we'd be writing about our second win in a row in what for Ireland is the least rewarding city on the circuit.

The defeat by England was notable for the amount of rugby Ireland played. And they still lost. Some of the criticism of Schmidt's game has been on the money, some of it daft. The accurate stuff was about his team's pathological fear of risk. It is simplistic to quantify this solely on the number of offloads, but it does give you an indication of what the team are prepared to consider.

Long before the World Cup we raised this issue with Schmidt, whose response was that it would take time for the team to gel, and RWC would be when they would be happy enough to loosen up a bit. Compared to the Pumas, however, we looked tight as a drum.

Fast-forward to last weekend and Ireland had become the Barbarians. Well, in the second half they had. That period wasn't on too long when Finlay Bealham became the fifth new cap of the campaign. What had started in impressive fashion with CJ Stander, developed nicely with Josh van der Flier and Stuart McCloskey starting in Twickenham, with Ultan Dillane coming off the bench, before the Connacht prop got the softest of debuts.

There was a minor - and deluded - outcry when McCloskey was dropped post-Twickenham to facilitate the fit-again Jared Payne. The Kiwi underlined his class again yesterday. McCloskey will go to South Africa in the summer, and come back a better player.

You'd hope Dillane too will benefit from the experience, but it's hard to fathom why Schmidt is so reluctant to use his bench. The Connacht second row appeared on 70 minutes along with Rhys Ruddock. We began wondering 10 minutes earlier when Ireland would get fresh legs into a pack where their opponents started summoning help in the third quarter.

Both Cian Healy and Richardt Strauss could also have seen action earlier for the home forwards were running low on juice quickly. It contributed to a recurring theme with this side, that they run out of bodies quickly enough when trying to build phases. Too often they end up with a gaggle around the ruck, leaving them short when trying to get width on their game.

Ireland play with lots of ball in hand, but there are heaps of collisions involved, and it costs them the sort of width Argentina now produce as a matter of course. It will be interesting to see if Schmidt tries to change this in the light of the last five games. Either way the clamour to keep him until the World Cup in Japan will be a lot louder than the grumbling about a mediocre campaign.

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