Wednesday 24 July 2019

Schmidt's Ireland: the team that has forgotten how to lose

Schmidt's attention to detail bedrock of year-long unbeaten run

Joe Schmidt speaks with his players prior to Ireland's victory against France. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Joe Schmidt speaks with his players prior to Ireland's victory against France. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Midway through the first half of Saturday's battle at the Aviva Stadium, Ireland had a lineout on their own 10m line.

A decade ago, they might have seen this as a time to try a strike move to get Brian O'Driscoll through a gap, or even a maul opportunity to eat up some yards and maybe milk a penalty.

This time, they went off the top and wide, where Simon Zebo carried hard at the French, but was mindful to present the ball neatly for Jared Payne, who had just glanced to his right before arriving as an auxiliary scrum-half as Rob Kearney and Sean O'Brien cleared out Mathieu Bastareaud.

The New Zealand-born centre was checking that all was as it should be and, sure enough, found Conor Murray standing at out-half with Paul O'Connell and Jamie Heaslip running with arms outstretched, looking for the ball and occupying four French defenders.

Instead of giving it to the forwards, Murray found the team's general, Johnny Sexton, lurking in behind and with the French defenders standing off in case he gave the ball to the strategically placed Peter O'Mahony, the fly-half angled a touch-finder in behind Teddy Thomas.

Ireland had lost possession, but gained 55m. They aggressively targeted Guilhem Guirado's throw and Devin Toner won the ball, only for the hooker to snaffle it back.

When France kicked clear, the home side attempted to hem them in, with Rob Kearney and Robbie Henshaw both making ground before the Athlone man got penalised for holding on.


It may appear an unremarkable incident in a game full of little moments, but it was perhaps the clearest indication of the level of detail with which Ireland play the game.

Every little detail was mapped out and, while there's no accounting for good opposition play or a harsh refereeing call, there is an acknowledgement that, if you can carry out your plan to the best of your abilities, you'll win the game.

Ireland are on the longest winning stretch of any of the contenders for next year's World Cup, and victory over England in 12 days' time would equal their best run of 10.

Schmidt's players talk about "knowing their own roles" and repeat the mantra that accuracy is everything. They may all be excellent individual players, but the team dynamic is utterly pre-eminent.

There is a relatively recent trend developing where online news outlets have begun counting the number of players from each country in Six Nations 'team of the weeks', with varying degrees of faux outrage when their own country has been perceived as being hard done by.

Yesterday, Jeremy Guscott picked just one Irish player - Sexton - on his BBC XV but he did single the Ireland coach out for high praise in the accompanying article.

Under the heading 'Vorsprung durch Joe Schmidt', the former England centre wrote: "The Irish team are like German engineering - they are efficient, they are reliable and you can count on them to do a really good job.

"There is nothing spectacular about their play at the moment. It is prescriptive - head coach Joe Schmidt has nailed down every bit of detail - but without being boring.

"The players look incredibly fit, energetic and happy in their work. Their defence is solid - they have conceded one try in their two games - and when they are backed up by kicking as good as Jonathan Sexton's and Conor Murray's, it makes a team difficult to overcome."

Ireland are a team to be feared, not because of the names on their teamsheets but the man in the coaching booth.

This is a coach who lost his team's greatest ever player and subsequently beat South Africa and Australia while bedding in a new centre partnership.

He has managed to beat almost all of the game's powers while coping without most of his more impactful players, while he has built and maintained a core of leaders who have developed a ruthless streak that funnels into a winning habit.

The English management assemble this week to figure out a way of beating Ireland again, but getting a handle on the New Zealander's approach must be a nightmare given he changes his approach from week to week.

The pillars on which success is built are not easy to gather from statistics alone, but they do offer a window into Ireland's approach.

Schmidt's Ireland have only ever off-loaded more than an opponent once, against Georgia, while they consistently kick more frequently than the other team, indicating an aversion to risk and a will to live off their rivals' mistakes.

Discipline is another huge element, with players referring to the Kiwi's strict approach to indiscretions on the training pitch. Under the former Leinster man, Ireland have only conceded more penalties than their opponents twice -- in their first game against Samoa and against France last March.


Their lineout and scrum are seen as attacking weapons more than penalty generators, while last weekend was a rare occasion when their success at ruck-time on their own ball fell below the other team's, but they still managed to concede just seven turnovers to France's 18.

There has been of the gameplan and the lack of expansion and last weekend saw Ireland make zero clean breaks, according to Opta, but the coach goes back to specific moments for answers, just as he did when Ireland beat South Africa and Australia but didn't quite click as they did last spring.

The most glaring was Sexton's pass to Payne that was "too firm" according to the coach, who was being generous. Sexton was criticised for not going wide, but feared that his pass might have been picked off and went for the safer option.

Had Ireland scored then, they'd have led by 17 points and could have opened up, but instead Rory Best got himself sin-binned and they were left clinging on.

Ireland's unbeaten record was never in doubt, given France could only ever draw the game, but this was the latest example of the side learning from their harrowing defeat to New Zealand. They have managed to repel opponents in the final throes through better defensive organisation, fresh legs and concentration levels that are heightened by the memory of Nigel Owens' whistle on that fateful day.

Yesterday's news that Heaslip would probably miss the rest of the tournament was another blow to a coach who had just assembled his strongest squad, but the next in line will be expected to step up.

A World Cup year is a good time to find yourself in such fine fettle and Ireland are learning to deal with expectancy from the outside.

It's the force driving them from within, the voice of their coach conducting the whole thing from above, that has gotten them to a point where they've forgotten how to lose.


Cloud nine: Ireland's run in figures

Ireland 46 Italy 7

France 20 Ireland 20

Argentina 17 Ireland 29

Argentina 17 Ireland 23

Ireland 29 South Africa 15

Ireland 49 Georgia 7

Ireland 26 Australia 23

Ireland 26 Italy 3

Ireland 18 France 11

Average points scored per game: 30

Average points conceded per game: 9

Average tries scored per game: 3

Average tries conceded per game: 1.5

Percentage of possession kicked: Ireland 8.29pc, opponents 7.21pc

Percentage of possession passed: Ireland 51.18pc, opponents 50.78pc

Percentage of possession run: Ireland 40.53pc, opponents 42.01pc

Average offloads per game: Ireland 5, opponents 9.4

Average metres gained per game: Ireland 420, opponents 348

Average turnovers conceded per game: Ireland 9.6, opponents 15.6

Average penalties conceded per game: Ireland 7.3, opponents 11.7

Irish Independent

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