Wednesday 23 May 2018

'The people in the crowd wave their arms, we roll our sleeves up'

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Murrayfield beckons, but Cardiff lingers. The image of despairing Irish players with their hands in the air, waving furiously in-field where the forwards are not listening just won't go away.

The Championship is still there to be won, but the Grand Slam that disappeared in the Welsh capital still stings.

Joe Schmidt has been through that performance with a fine-tooth comb at this stage and found solace in the good that went with the bad.

However, the perception remains that a team with genuine World Cup ambitions like, say, the All Blacks would have taken the chance that went a-begging when Eoin Reddan and Johnny Sexton were sucked into a ruck and Paul O'Connell popped and Cian Healy knocked on.

Joe Schmidt issues instructions during the Irish training session in Carton House yesterday
Joe Schmidt issues instructions during the Irish training session in Carton House yesterday
Schmidt launched a withering dismissal of the RTE pundit's description of Payne as a "second-rate foreign player"
Joe Schmidt has been through the performance with a fine-tooth comb at this stage and found solace in the good that went with the bad

So, what was the message to the players standing out there, furiously signalling that they had been afforded the freedom of Cardiff?

"I said to them, you're not spectators. The people in the crowd wave their arms; we roll our sleeves up and we get involved," he said matter-of-factly.

"While we want to keep width in our attack, we've got to make sure that opportunities to transfer that ball, not guys standing out there demanding that other people do it.

"I think some of the guys need to take responsibility to make sure that they are involved in helping make those transfers.

Frustrating

"It is frustrating. Sometimes your numbers 9 and 10 do get caught up and it's up to your No 12 and your No 15 to run that.

"We do have a little inexperience at No 12, but I don't think you could fault Robbie (Henshaw)'s form right through the Championship and he'll grow into that first receiver role when it's demanded of him a little bit more as he gains experience.

"One of the things that I do feel we will get a benefit from is working our way through this Championship. Having a loss, the first one in over a year, that we stay balanced in how we're preparing and we don't necessarily have to go too far away from what we've been doing.

"We just need to make sure that we don't allow ourselves to go in with any expectation that something is going to happen for us; that we have to go in and know that at Test match level you've got to make things happen.

"You've got to be all over the facets of the game that you know are going to be pivotal and we weren't in that first 15 minutes against Wales."

Schmidt has largely kept the same core together over the course of his time in charge, with the exception being in the midfield where the more than 200 combined caps of Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll have been replaced by the far less experienced Henshaw and Jared Payne who are five games into their partnership.

Former Ireland winger Shane Horgan has questioned whether there is enough leadership in the backline outside of Sexton and that point was put to Schmidt yesterday.

However, it was clear that he had been irked by the thoughts of another pundit and, while he didn't name George Hook by name, he launched a withering dismissal of the RTE pundit's description of Payne as a "second-rate foreign player".

"You've got to give people responsibility and put them in a position where that leadership is demanded of them. We try to keep a balance, we've got great experience at No 9 and 10, even off the bench at No 9 and even Ian Madigan has spent a lot of time with us even if his pitch time has been a little bit limited," he said of the leadership issue.

"Again, Jared doesn't have a lot of Test match experience but he has played a lot of Super Rugby and European rugby. That breadth of experience and his maturity help Robbie work away and then on the edges, Tommy (Bowe) is a very experienced player for us and so is Rob Kearney.

"Brian O'Driscoll doesn't leave a team and suddenly there's no deficit, the guys who have come in in his place have done a super job, but they can't do the same job, they're doing the job with a different experience and a different knowledge of the game at that level.

"I'm not a patient man, I'm not going to say that we're being patient about it but we have to be a little bit tolerant of the development that needs to take place.

"I was incredibly disappointed with one of the so-called pundits slating our of our midfield last weekend when I thought he'd played a good game and I thought he actually opened them up. He made a couple of line breaks and was dead solid defensively.

"That sort of thing, when we're trying to build confidence in players, filters back to players through family and friends and I don't think it helps.

"I don't think it's accurate, it's one of those unfortunate by-products of having people for entertainment value as opposed to people who are a little bit more in-depth in their analysis as the other two pundits were."

Simon Zebo was the only back not to be afforded a second chance. Schmidt said he made the decision to make two changes after Tuesday's training session which he described as "as flat as it's been" during the campaign and, combined with the slow start last weekend, heightened the need for freshness.

So, Luke Fitzgerald and Cian Healy come into a side who find themselves in the strange situation of playing in the middle of the three games on the final day. They will keep an eye on events in Rome where Wales play Italy needing 21 points to get ahead of Ireland and 25 to top England who play France after events in Edinburgh have concluded.

Zebo will be in Cardiff as the 24th man along with Tommy O'Donnell, but Felix Jones remains on the bench ahead of his Munster colleagues Zebo and Earls. Schmidt said O'Donnell, Zebo and Earls were all close to the bench, but he has full faith in Jones who has been an unused replacement in the two closest games of the campaign to date.

The coach thinks differently to most on the outside and he cited the last time Ireland were in a similar situation to the one they face on Saturday, when they lost out to France on points difference, as an example of where Jones can add value.

"They were massively in consideration," he said of the trio of Munster players who are perceived to have more impact in their locker than Jones and Jordi Murphy. "Have we got it right? Potentially not. We wanted to make sure we have a freshness but also we wanted continuity.

"One of the things probably in 2007, it wasn't the points scored but the points that were scored against Ireland in the end. They had to get those points for but it was that last try against (that cost them).

"I don't think there are too many better defenders around than Felix. I'm trying to think both sides of the ball in terms of what we might need in terms of winning the game first and foremost and if it becomes something more than that then it will have to have been a mighty performance."

Difficult

Playing in the middle match makes life difficult for Ireland and for a man who likes control, the 80 minutes watching England v France will be difficult if his own team can get the better of a Scottish team he respects hugely.

Although the Slam is gone, a successive title for the first time since 1949 remains the prize and, in a World Cup year, it is not to be sniffed at.

"I think the history of it goes back a long way," Schmidt said. "It would be the first (Irish) professional team to go back-to-back.

"We lost so big an opportunity last week that the opportunity that still exists is one that goes back a long way. For the team, it would still mean a heck of a lot without a doubt.

"Some people who make comment don't see how hard these guys work and the sacrifice they make to try and, literally, put their bodies on the line to achieve something for this team.

"There's massive disappointment from last week, part of it is can we get back up in time? That's part of adding a little freshness, it's part of trying to make sure that we don't lose our confidence and suddenly say what we're doing is wrong.

"After going for over a year, you probably forget how much it hurts to lose. Make no mistake, there's a lot of players who were pretty despondent post the game on Saturday."

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport