Tuesday 12 December 2017

Comment: Joe Schmidt searches for answers as his charges lack drive

False start and lack of accuracy cost Ireland dear at Murrayfield

Ireland players, from left, Jamie Heaslip, Devin Toner, Iain Henderson, CJ Stander and Sean O'Brien during the RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Scotland and Ireland at BT Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ireland players, from left, Jamie Heaslip, Devin Toner, Iain Henderson, CJ Stander and Sean O'Brien during the RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Scotland and Ireland at BT Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Stuart Hogg celebrates his team's victory at Murrayfield Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

"We weren't our usual urgent selves and maybe I've got to look at the preparation I gave the team - the preparation wasn't good enough."

Joe Schmidt? No, those were the words of Eddie Jones, who assumed full responsibility for his England side's misfiring performance against France.

Schmidt could tell you what went wrong in minute detail, but if he knew the reasons behind his side's chronic under-performance he wasn't about to offer them up for public consumption.

It would be churlish to suggest that Ireland's coach blamed the bus driver or the police escort after the team arrived 15 minutes late to the stadium, but he seemed to think that it set the tone.

Read more: Dreams of Grand Slam glory left in tatters

The match brought back chilling memories of the World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina, as Ireland saw their Grand Slam ambitions go up in smoke thanks to a painfully slow start and a shocking defensive effort.

They showed resilience in fighting their way into a winning position, then lost it all over again, while getting a negligible impact from their bench.

The New Zealander has never been one to claim sole responsibility for Ireland's great days, so it would be wrong to apportion all of the blame for this dreadful start to him. Ultimately, though, he is the man in charge and will have already examined every element of the team's preparation to see why they gave Scotland a head start.

Sean O'Brien races away from the Scottish defence Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Sean O'Brien races away from the Scottish defence Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

First up in the witness box will be Andy Farrell, whose honeymoon period as Ireland's defence coach is now well and truly over.

The Englishman has been lauded since coming on board for the summer tour of South Africa, but he is presiding over a set-up that is leaking three tries a game and must take some responsibility for the disjointed approach to the Scottish attack.

Farrell and Schmidt fixed things at half-time, but at that stage their side was 21-8 down after Stuart Hogg's double and Alex Dunbar's effort.

It seemed like every time Scotland went wide they'd score, but Schmidt wasn't impressed with the suggestion that the defence coach has questions to answer.

Read more: Grim day for Schmidt as Scots rewrite script

"You never want to concede any tries," he said. "The tries we conceded today were particularly frustrating. The line-out one, the two that Stuart Hogg scored were frustrating, especially as we know the danger he represents. If you look at the second half, the defence was pretty sound and I would hope that is something we can build on."

Simon Easterby will be next on the offenders list as he explains a lineout that malfunctioned under pressure and gave up the softest try Ireland have conceded under Schmidt. Centre Alex Dunbar joined the lineout, received the ball and scored without anyone in a green shirt noticing his presence.

Of course, the players, in particular the senior men, will take some responsibility for a performance that appeared to lack leadership. Ireland's poorest displays came from their leadership corps, which set the tone for the others.

Cian Healy and Jamie Heaslip contest a line-out Photo: Reuters / Lee Smith
Cian Healy and Jamie Heaslip contest a line-out Photo: Reuters / Lee Smith

Schmidt will also reflect on his own role in the loss. Leaving the in-form Donnacha Ryan out of the match-day 23 was the wrong call, as Iain Henderson carried his sluggish Ulster performances into the green jersey and Ultan Dillane - who hasn't played for over a month - looked well below par when he came on.

Read more: Sean O'Brien laments poor start against Scotland but takes positives going into Italy clash

When explaining Ryan's exclusion, Schmidt referred to a previously unmentioned knee injury, but the second-row was fit enough to travel to Edinburgh and take part in the warm-up. One wonders what he made of his men being bullied by the home team.

Schmidt's attacking game-plan looked to have regressed from November; the expected rain failed to arrive and the succession of one-out carriers hammered relentlessly into Scottish defenders with little reward.

He'll point to the 13 line-breaks, three tries and 32 defenders beaten as vindication of his approach, but the team's execution was nowhere near their usual high standards and as a result they failed to take their chances.

Scotland disrupted the ball at the breakdown and, while they never went near his standing leg, they made life hell for an under-par Conor Murray.

"We weren't as accurate as we needed to be," Schmidt said.

"We made line-breaks and we didn't finish in behind them. We had territory and possession in the first-half and they had the scores, but at the same time our possession was very slow. Some of the possession you really want is from those positions in the 22, and I think we turned two or three of those over.

"It was just too easy for them to sort of come back and attack at us. Even leading up to the penalty in the back end of the game to go ahead, they actually had a 5m line-out just prior to that and we didn't get as much pressure on that as we would have liked.

Read more: Neil Francis: Losing to an inferior side will really hurt Joe Schmidt and Ireland

"Post that, we had a line-out because they had had to clear, just outside their 22, and we didn't make enough use of that ball. As soon as you don't do that, you are inviting them in and they were hanging in there. And when they got the chance, they made the most of it."

While the slow start was the subject of much of the post-match debate, perhaps more disappointing was the fact that Ireland had worked so hard to get back into the game through Henderson and Paddy Jackson's tries, led by a point with 18 minutes remaining, and didn't win.

They had a line-out in Scotland's 22, but threw beyond the 15 and that allowed John Barclay to spoil and force CJ Stander to knock-on. Another knock-on from the Munster tyro followed, before Rob Kearney threw a wild pass into touch.

Instead it was the Scots, led by Greig Laidlaw, who were more composed in the end game. Keeping their width, they asked questions of Ireland and lured them into conceding the penalties that allowed the captain kick the two goals to win it.

"We looked like we were losing energy for a while," coach Vern Cotter said.

"We knew that the other team were upping the ante. Ireland changed their defence and they were coming at us quite hard and being aggressive, so sooner or later they were going to fade as well.

"We hung in there long enough. We lost purchase and we got a bit of a slip, but we managed to get it back. We dug in and got the win. It shows that if you weather those storms and believe in what you're doing and don't change..."

Read more: Comment: Complacent Ireland were well and truly Chicagoed by fiery Scots

From Ireland's perspective it was deeply disappointing.

"When you get from the bottom of the mountain and you get back up, you are 21-5 down and you get 21-22 ahead, that is a fair bit of hard work that goes into that. I think we deserved the lead too," Schmidt concluded.

"They clawed their way back in impressively and then to let that slip there is massive disappointment. Just at the start of the championship you cannot allow it to linger too long, although I think it is OK to let it linger a little bit."

They might find this one will linger for quite some time.

Irish Independent

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