Wednesday 25 April 2018

'Anxiety of players is now our biggest problem: Schmidt

Ireland 26 Wales 3

Cian Healy (left) leads the celebrations after Chris Henry's try
Cian Healy (left) leads the celebrations after Chris Henry's try

Ruadhri O'Connor

THE contrast between the two New Zealanders who reported to the auditorium beneath the west stand of Lansdowne Road on Saturday couldn't have been greater.

Flanked by his entire management team and captain, Warren Gatland looked soul-destroyed as he picked through the wreckage of his champions being dismantled by the team who finished fifth last season.

A quarter of an hour later, Joe Schmidt arrived looking as calm as he has been since becoming Ireland coach as he cracked jokes and interacted playfully with captain Paul O'Connell who sat alongside him.

It told its own story about how this game will help define the two teams' season. Ireland have England next, Wales host France; both remain in the title hunt but it didn't feel like it.

They now have a fortnight to regroup and Ireland's thoughts turn to Twickenham. The players have a few days to themselves before regathering in Clonmel later this week to begin plotting their next heist.

While his players rest, work between Schmidt and his brains trust will start immediately.

MONSTROUS

After silencing the big guns in Wales' backline, thoughts must now turn to depowering a monstrous England forward pack.

Apart from commercial engagements, the team will not do any media this week and will be cocooned in Tipperary where Schmidt will hope to keep all loose talk of potential Grand Slams or Championships to a minimum.

"It's the next game so it's the biggest challenge," he said of England. "That's the way it is. It is massive though.

"It's huge, and I think part of what we have to manage now is player anxiety because they're going to be made well aware, going for a break for a couple of days before we go to Clonmel, of the expectation and the public expectation.

"We want it to actually develop but that expectation does build anxiety because you know to meet that expectation you're going to have to be bang on, on the day, and there are a lot of variables that will make that difficult to do. And that's our challenge."

The cornerstone of Ireland's success so far has been defence, Les Kiss' line has yet to be breached and only nine points from three penalties sit in the against column after 160 minutes of rugby.

Wales planned on marching over and through Ireland on Saturday, but from the minute Andrew Trimble shackled George North and Paul O'Connell drove Dan Lydiate backwards and Peter O'Mahony forced the penalty, the visitors struggled for front-foot ball.

When they did threaten to generate momentum, the superb Munster captain was there to steal their ball.

As Gatland lamented the concession of 15 penalties by his team, Schmidt gathered his troops and lauded them for holding their nerve in defence.

"It's certainly one we talked about afterwards and part of it is that we're trying to stay really disciplined around the tackle," he said.

"We're trying to make the tackle first of all and that's one of the things that keeps people from scoring, but also to keep really disciplined around the tackle. I thought we counter-rucked really well against Scotland, I thought we put pressure on in the ruck, on our feet pretty well and, at the same time, we got some good poach opportunities with Pete who is in great form."

If that frustrated Wales, it was the accuracy of Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray's kicking and the brilliant chasing from the back three that suffocated the champions.

Gatland grudgingly described Ireland's tactics as "effective" and admitted he was surprised by the conservative nature of Schmidt's approach.

His fellow New Zealander later shrugged and said the weather forecast had done much to inform his plans.

Ireland smashed the big Welsh backs in contact and got over the ball. Lydiate carried his woeful Racing Metro form into the red jersey, while the undercooked Sam Warburton and Gethin Jenkins looked like the Cardiff Blues versions of themselves.

The hosts, meanwhile, kept it simple and used their maul to devastating effect. While Kiss will take the plaudits for the shut-out, forwards coach John Plumtree's influence on the excellent forwards cannot be overlooked.

Whether it will be enough to beat England remains to be seen and the challenge for Schmidt is to add some of his trademark sparkle to the work behind the scrum where Ireland have failed to get anything moving so far.

They could justifiably ask how they played against 15 men for so long at the weekend with the high penalty concession rate, but Shaun Edwards appeared to have worked out what was coming from the Irish backline.

So Ireland went over the Welsh, with Sexton and Murray targeting the wings and poor Liam Williams – an early replacement for Scott Williams who damaged his shoulders when making a huge, no-arm hit on Brian O'Driscoll – must have been dizzy.

Two early Welsh infringements at ruck-time had allowed Sexton build a six-point lead before Rob Kearney brilliantly beat Leigh Halfpenny to his own kick and, with the help of Mike Ross, presented the ball for the out-half to turn Rhys Priestland who carried into touch.

Rory Best found Devin Toner with his throw, he handed off to Chris Henry quickly to avoid a sacking and the Ulster man marched over for his first international try.

Sexton converted and, although he missed a long-range penalty with the last play of the half, a 13-0 lead was sufficient reward for Ireland's efforts.

Wales' plan A had been stifled and they had no alternative to which to turn. Mike Phillips lost his cool repeatedly, Ireland were having joy on Welsh ball and the breakdown was going the home side's way. Andrew Coombs took Cian Healy out in an attempt to halt the maul, so Sexton extended the lead and, as the rain began to fall, Schmidt felt secure enough to haul O'Connell and Ross ashore.

Marty Moore conceded a penalty in his first scrum and Halfpenny finally got his side off the mark, but Sexton extended the gap to 16 points with another penalty inside three minutes.

Wales knew the game was up and, although they got over the line through replacement tighthead Rhodri Jones, Wayne Barnes penalised him for a double movement.

Instead, it was Ireland who were able to ice their cake with another dominant maul that saw Henry control at the back before Murray found Jackson who went over untouched until Liam Williams' elbow to the face sparked the row that saw Phillips finally binned.

An injury-time breakout by Isaac Boss and Jackson almost created a third try, but Halfpenny got a hand in and Alex Cuthbert hauled Dave Kearney down.

That would have been greedy, Ireland had had their fill.

Amid all of the sub-plots, raw aggression and the boot of Sexton won out and the champions had been derailed.

"They've kicked the leather off it but it's been effective," Gatland concluded.

"They played a lot of one-pass rugby and potentially sometimes in the past we've been criticised for not playing rugby and we've gone out to move the ball around ... but that said I'm not making excuses, the performance wasn't good enough, Ireland deserved to win."

Onwards to Twickenham.

Irish Independent

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