Thursday 22 March 2018

Joe Schmidt's seven-point masterplan to expose England

Ireland coach sure to have fresh ploys up his sleeve for Grand Slam showdown

Joe Schmidt during squad training
Joe Schmidt during squad training
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

DEEP inside the inner sanctum of Ireland's Carton House base, in a room that is almost certainly above your security clearance level, Joe Schmidt and his coaching staff have been working feverishly at a document that surpasses the 'Book of Kells' in terms of importance this week: the game-plan.

There was a time when the soldiers won battles like the Sunday's match-up between Ireland and England, but these days the strategy is orchestrated by the men removed from the action behind a glass screen in the stands with help from their on-field generals.

Security levels are high in Kildare this week where the Irish management are fearful of watching English eyes prying for secrets beyond the green mesh at the training pitch.

Down in the press room, the game-plan is discussed with hushed reverence, with players and coaches respectful of its power and conscious that too much information could prove fatal when they enter the collision-zone.

All will be revealed on Sunday at 3.0, but the template is already in place. The beauty of what Schmidt has built in the last two seasons is that Ireland can adapt to their opponents and, while players say the plan won't be different, it will be tailored for England they will be expected to execute it with ruthless efficiency.

While there will surely be a few surprises, what will the core tenets of the famous plan be when the unbeaten English come to town?

1 Analysis

The entire Aviva Stadium was crying out for Johnny Sexton to pass the ball wide to Simon Zebo against France, but the out-half worked out the calculations and opted to hold on.

He later explained that he had noticed France wing Yoann Huget was a big intercept threat, so while the risks of throwing long outweighed the potential reward.

Perhaps the most used word in the Ireland squad member's dialect is "detail". In everyday terms, the players are talking about the list of calls, moves and running-lines they need to know in a given Test week.

They have had two weeks to mull over their information since the review of the France game and are expected to turn up at training ready to work.

By kick-off, they are ready to implement the plan to the letter.

2 Kicking Game

Whether kicking off or receiving, Ireland have set plays they will look to execute to either take advantage of the contest or snuff out the English threat.

If they receive, Ireland will have their 'exit strategies' in place. Usually this involves one of the locks catching the ball, before one or two forwards carry the ball into an area that makes for a manageable clearing kick for either Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton or Rob Kearney.

While the kicking game can sometimes be dismissed, Schmidt places great importance on the strategy behind putting boot to ball. Ireland like to ensure the ball is 'contestable' for Kearney, Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo and England have been preparing for the dropping ball all week - even changing their wingers in anticipation.

They will probably set up for Murray's box-kicks and Sexton's attempts to turn them, so Ireland may look to utilise the two converted full-backs in midfield, just like Connacht do with Robbie Henshaw (below), with a little dink over the top of the onrushing English line. If Ireland can turn the big English defenders regularly and keep them moving, they'll be on to something.

On their own kick-offs, Ireland will vary their game, and England will have noticed how successful Bowe was in winning Sexton's measured deliveries against France and should be ready.

3 Defence

Ireland like to vary their defensive effort depending on the opposition and the scenario and Les Kiss will have been hard at work checking out the new faces in the English back-line, particularly Bath trio George Ford, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson.

Ireland's mission is to prevent England gaining momentum through their phase-game and they only need to look at the Wolfhounds defeat to the Saxons last month for evidence of the dangers of the white waves when they get going.

A week later, Joseph was rounding tired Welsh defenders after 20 phases of play as the Billy Vunipolas and James Haskells ground their opponents down, before the centre with the magic feet did the damage.

Last season, Ireland often deployed Brian O'Driscoll as a shooter to rush out of the line and deny England room in the wide areas, and Jared Payne might do the same on Sunday.


Ireland's lineout and scrum left Twickenham with 100pc records last season and a similar return this weekend should reap better reward on the scoreboard.

Schmidt likes to use the set-piece as a launchpad for his so-called 'power-plays', the best example of which came in London last year when a clever lineout was followed by two phases of carrying before Jamie Heaslip unleashed Kearney to score.

Ireland exploited England's lack of protection around the tail of the line by allowing Peter O'Mahony peel off and collect, something they may try again.

As for the scrum, Ireland want the engagement steady and the ball playable. If a penalty comes their way, they'll take it but they want to use the maligned set-piece to run moves.


It would be utterly forgiveable if fans were tired of hearing about the breakdown, but the battle for possession will determine the outcome on Sunday more than any area of the game.

France's ability to disrupt Ireland's ball two week's ago was a large reason behind the Ireland attack failing to fire and Schmidt will have reinforced the message that accurate clearing out of opponents is a fundamental core of this team's success.

On England's ball, Ireland will look to disrupt the flow and halt the phases, slowing possession for Ben Youngs and putting Ford on the back-foot.


A year may be a long time in rugby, but Ireland caused England plenty of problems with ball in hand last year despite scoring just 10 points.

Noticeably avoiding the midfield shipping lanes where the big beasts roam, Sexton used cross-kicks and wraparounds to work the outside channels where the back three were marked absent waiting for the deep ball.

It often required the deft hands of O'Driscoll, but there was room to move out wide and Italy proved that clever wing-play can create opportunities for others at Twickenham, with Leonardo Sarto's chip and collect ultimately creating Luca Morisi's first try.

That won't have gone unnoticed in the analysis room and the ability to turn the English tanks will go a long way.

The addition of Henshaw's size to the equation allows Ireland to truck it up and he's their top carrier of the tournament so far, but the Connacht man could be used as a decoy this time around.


Even Schmidt would accept that a plan is only as good as its execution and Ireland have been left lamenting their lack of accuracy in recent weeks.

They have still done more than enough to win games, but there is a sense that only their best will be enough to beat England this Sunday.

Last year's meeting was an absorbing battle and one Ireland could have won had the players just been that little bit sharper in their execution. Ever the stickler, Schmidt harked back to an Andrew Trimble off-load to Kearney from a Sexton cross-kick as the main moment lost, but there were others when the visiting side worked an opportunity and didn't avail.

The drive for higher standards in Kildare will mean that the players are clear on their roles and know their opponents' strengths and weaknesses.

On Sunday, Schmidt's masterplan will be unveiled and its success will live or die on how well it's carried out. Despite the array of world class operators, it is the most potent weapon in the Irish armoury.

Irish Independent

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