Monday 18 November 2019

George Hook: Ireland's tactical naivety wouldn't look out of place in the Mongolian national team

Joe Schmidt's best defence against criticism is to win this afternoon's match against Scotland
Joe Schmidt's best defence against criticism is to win this afternoon's match against Scotland

George Hook

Joe Schmidt is not a happy camper at the criticism emanating from certain quarters of the media. He seems to be labouring under the misconception that those who comment on the game are part of the marketing campaign for the Irish rugby team. He is not the first coach of the national team in rugby or soccer to try and control the media. His best defence against criticism is to win the match.

The day of decision has arrived in the Six Nations Championship and it is hard to imagine that Ireland will do better away to Scotland than England at home to France. Wales may in fact be best placed with the advantage of being first up against Italy without Sergio Parisse.

A 40-point win could set the cat among the pigeons for everyone.

But for this Ireland rugby team, where tries are harder to come by than hens' teeth, any system that would reward the very thing that seems to elude the current national side should be vehemently opposed.

Consider Italy as a prime example. Where Ireland huffed and puffed their way to a laboured and unimpressive two-try victory in round one, England were able to run riot against the Azzurri, touching down six times in 80 minutes.

England also managed three tries in a below-par performance against Scotland and scored two tries against Wales in Cardiff, overturning an eight-point half-time deficit in the process.

A penalty try aside, Ireland didn't score at all at the Millennium Stadium last weekend, where green jerseys repeatedly and unsuccessfully attempted to bash their way over the white line in a display of tactical naivety that wouldn't look out of place in the Mongolian national team.

Joe Schmidt's side also failed to score against France - despite dominating for nigh on 70 minutes, and they managed just a single solitary try against England in Dublin, again with the majority of possession and numerous opportunities inside the opposition half.

So what is the great plan here? Does the current Schmidt era revolve solely around getting the best out of our only world-class back?

Jonathan Sexton had - by his own standards - a poor day at the office against Wales, yet Ireland had no back-up or Plan B. Sexton clearly wasn't right, but it was foolish in the extreme to expect a man returning from a three-month lay-off to be able to sustain top form over the course of four gruelling weeks. If a team game-plan revolves around one player's ability to reach optimum level, week in, week out, and that same player has a bad day, the entire structure will inevitably collapse.

This afternoon Simon Zebo has paid the price for Ireland's limited attacking game. Zebo is at his most effective in a one-on-one scenario with ball in hand.

The Munster flyer consistently beats defenders for fun in the Pro12, but his talents have been tapered by a conservative coach in this year's Championship.

Against Italy, when the rest of the team were busy seeking out contact at every opportunity, Zebo was the only player willing to vary his angles of running in attack and looking to create space.

Since then, he has been reduced to chasing box-kicks or standing off Sexton's shoulder as a decoy runner.

Nothing against Luke Fitzgerald, who has been in superb form for Leinster during each of his last 12 consecutive starts, but if Schmidt does not give Ireland a licence to move the ball wide today, Fitzgerald's talents will be as wasted as Zebo's have been over the previous four rounds.

The inclusion of Cian Healy in the front-row will add dynamism to the pack. Jack McGrath can take a lot of positives from his performances, but it was always inevitable that Healy would come back into the fold at some stage.

That it has taken this long for Healy to force his way back into the starting team is a credit to the maturity and determination of McGrath.

Underestimating the Scots would be a foolish ploy. Vern Cotter has yet to taste a Championship victory as head coach, but there have been signs that Scotland are an improved side under the New Zealander this year.

Against France in Paris, Scotland strangled the French attack and but for a failed late intercept attempt from Tim Visser, the visitors could have left Stade de France with a victory.

Scotland's biggest problem remains at scrum-half where Greg Laidlaw continues to cling on to his jersey against all reasonable rationale.

If Scotland had anyone else that could place-kick, Laidlaw would be cast aside. The Gloucester No 9 is far too slow with his delivery and his decision-making is consistently poor.

Scotland should have beaten Wales in Murrayfield but for some bewildering options in prime attacking positions from their captain.

Finn Russell has kicked reasonably well for Glasgow this season; Cotter would be better served handing the goal-kicking duties to his fly-half and dispensing with Laidlaw before the World Cup comes around.

In Murrayfield this afternoon, it is difficult to see Schmidt deviating from a game-plan that brought Ireland 10 successive victories.

A repeat performance will probably be enough to account for Scotland, but with Ireland needing to put up a big score to challenge England for the title, a win in its own right will almost certainly not be enough.

France will probably lose to England and Ireland - by their inferior points difference - will have to hand over the Championship for another year.

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