Monday 22 July 2019

George Hook: Sterile policy not enough to bring home the big prize

Ireland players, from left, Jordi Murphy, Eoin Reddan, Sean O'Brien, Paul O'Connell and Iain Henderson before the final scrum of the game
Ireland players, from left, Jordi Murphy, Eoin Reddan, Sean O'Brien, Paul O'Connell and Iain Henderson before the final scrum of the game

George Hook

For Ireland, the Grand Slam dream is in tatters after the defeat by Wales in Cardiff. However, of far more import is a performance that failed to win a game that was there for the taking.

Wales were forced to make a tackle every 17 seconds or 288 in total as Ireland, playing without wit or invention, attempted to bludgeon their way to victory.

Joe Schmidt had become the darling of the media by fashioning 10 consecutive wins on a policy of not taking a risk or making an error. It was not attractive but 'a win is a win is a win', was the refrain from the fans. He could, it was said, fashion a game-plan for any occasion.

Eddie O'Sullivan gained exactly the same number of consecutive victories using the same all-consuming control strategy. The problem for Schmidt is the same as faced Eddie. Players will follow any diktat that secures a win. The wheels start to come off when failure is the result.

The current coach is a long way from that eventuality but four tries in four games; three from inside five yards is hardly a testament to his ability to bring an attacking game-plan to Murrayfield.

On Saturday, Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo were superfluous as attacking options and were reduced to hewers of wood and drawers of water.

Meanwhile Rob Kearney was caught in a 1950s time-warp, anchored in the defensive zone as a mere catcher and kicker. At the beginning of this season, Robbie Henshaw was hailed as the natural successor to Brian O'Driscoll. For Schmidt he has been relegated to inside centre and used as a crash-ball carrier.

Outside him is Jared Payne who has made no progress since first selected. Against Wales the two crashed, banged and walloped without ever searching for space out wide. The entire backline butchered overlaps and space with abandon. Can the modern game be played only by giant automatons that are incapable of making a decision?

The new plan unveiled for the game was to kick less and presumably trust the passing skills of the players. Ireland kicked 18 times in contrast to the 44 attempts against England. Johnny Sexton, on at least half of his efforts, failed to have the desired result which obviously affected his confidence as his decision-making with ball in hand also left a lot to be desired. Inside him, Conor Murray proved that he cannot box kick and he too seemed caught up in the general confused malaise. The defining moments of the game came close together. Ireland in two attacks recycled the ball almost 50 times with the aim, it appeared, of hoping that a man in red would miss a tackle. The defenders were up to the task but, dragged into a bar-room brawl, they left acres of space out wide which Ireland could not see.

Soon after, Wales spent a short time inside the Irish defensive zone and took the ball from side using the backline. They also could not penetrate until Bowe made a schoolboy howler when there was no threat as two Irish defenders covered two Welsh attackers. In a moment of complete madness, he came off Scott Williams and gave the centre a free run at the line.

The Ulster wing has not had a good season. At his best he went looking for work and turned up across the backline. Now he cuts a forlorn figure isolated on the wing, seemingly afraid to try something not in the script. His failure, which ultimately cost Ireland the game, may be a testament to the scrambled nature of the messages he is receiving.


If the backline were the major culprits then the forwards did not help matters by losing vital balls on their own throw; failing to gain an ascendency at the scrum when Wales were reduced to using two sub-standard props; and poor discipline in the opening 20 minutes which gave the Welsh a 12-point cushion.

Many will attribute the loss to those early failings but Ireland were in charge in the second half and dominating possession and territory. Ireland lost because football coaches of all codes know that to win you must risk losing. That is not this team's philosophy and it was bitten in the posterior when it was incapable of trying to win.

Saturday was not a disaster but it goes some way to proving that a sterile policy will not be enough to win the big prizes. The challenge for the coach is what to do about next weekend. No change in outlook and no change in personnel might well fashion a victory against the hapless Scots but the rest of world will watch and wait for the autumn.

The emperor may not be without any clothes but Schmidt may need a visit to Louis Copeland before the end of his term of office.

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