Saturday 20 October 2018

Comment: Joe Schmidt's caution may be holding Ireland back

Talking Point

Ireland's Johnny Sexton. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland's Johnny Sexton. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Your reaction to Ireland's win over France will make a pretty good optimist or pessimist test if there's no glass of water handy.

The optimists will exult over one of the greatest scores in Irish rugby history and one of the most exciting denouements.

They'll say this shows Ireland's ability to chisel out victories from the most unpromising situations and will point to the All Blacks-like precision and focus evident in the final minutes. This is how a team wins when its name is on the trophy.

The pessimists will ask how Ireland ended up in such a perilous position. Only a magnificent last-gasp intervention by Johnny Sexton prevented a repeat of the deeply depressing loss to the same opposition two years ago.

The gloomily inclined will wonder where all that precision and focus was during the rest of Ireland's third successive underwhelming performance in a Six Nations opener.

As is usually the case when optimist and pessimist clash, there's right on both sides.

Sexton's drop-goal does rank with the very greatest Irish scores - the McLoughlin try in Twickenham, the last-gasp Ringland winner in Murrayfield, the Kiernan drop-goal against England, the O'Gara drop-goal against Wales, the Horgan try which landed the Triple Crown 12 years ago.

It probably surpassed all of them in terms of difficulty. Ireland had to not only complete 41 phases but to do so in extremely difficult conditions. Normal time had elapsed, meaning a mistake would probably end the game.

The extraordinary winning kick was struck by a player who only a couple of minutes earlier had been suffering from cramp. Beat that, Hollywood.

The score Sexton's strike resembled most was the last-gasp drop-goal landed by Ronan O'Gara to win a Heineken Cup match for Munster against Northampton in 2011. Oddly enough, 41 phases preceded that one too.

In his The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, English writer Douglas Adams wrote that the answer to the ultimate question of Life, The Universe and Everything is 42. Which may be true if you count the drop-goal itself as phase number 42. It certainly felt like that on Saturday afternoon.

Only very good teams can finish a game in this manner. Joe Schmidt has instilled remarkable levels of organisation, discipline and self-belief in the Irish players, which is why he's probably our best ever national team manager.

He is not, however, a romantic. On Saturday's evidence, suggestions that in this year's Six Nations Ireland, with one eye on the World Cup, would play a more expansive game than in recent tournaments are ill-founded.

It seems likelier that the team will again proceed in the cautious fashion that brought Six Nations titles in 2014 and 2015, and contributed to defeats by France, Scotland and Wales in the last couple of years.

Next week's match against Italy should provide an opportunity for headlines of the 'Sparkling Ireland prove the doubters wrong' variety. But anyone can be adventurous against Italy.

It's unlikely that any of the other games will put Ireland in any danger of being mistaken for the Barbarians. The weakness of Scotland's pack means it makes sense to take them on up front.

Why play an open game against Wales when they'd thrive in that kind of contest? And of course a game against England with the title at stake is no time to take chances.

When Ireland reach Twickenham we'll probably be praying for rain to stymie an opposing team more willing to take risks, something which may work to England's advantage not just this year but in 2019.

Yet it's hard to argue with Schmidt. Results have earned him the right to his worldview.

His big gamble of the weekend paid off handsomely. James Ryan, who this time last year was still an academy player at Leinster, was one of the big successes of the day. The mouth waters at the thought of what the future holds for this remarkable youngster.

Opting for Ryan over Devin Toner was an atypically bold selection by Schmidt.

The manager's faith in Rob Kearney once seemed to epitomise his caution. Now it seems one of those decisions, like Giovanni Trapattoni's perpetual selection of Glenn Whelan, Martin O'Neill's agnosticism about Wes Hoolahan, Mayo's insistence on constantly subbing Colm Boyle and Andy Moran, that even the best managers persist with out of a stubborn refusal to admit they might be wrong.

Saturday showed that the standard defence of Kearney, that he doesn't make mistakes, hardly applies any more. Mightn't Jordan Larmour or Joey Carbery make a Ryan-type impact given the chance at No 15?

Showcase

The Italy game would provide the ideal showcase for their talents, as it should for those of Jacob Stockdale, pilloried for a moment of defensive inattention after a game in which, like Simon Zebo before him and Keith Earls on the other wing, his attacking opportunities consisted of trying to eke out a few yards in impossibly tight spaces.

Warren Gatland channelled the swashbuckling spirit of the Scarlets to mastermind a stunning victory for Wales over Scotland, but it's unlikely Ireland will strive to emulate Leinster.

It seems a pity that for 70 minutes the Paris match was so dull it might have been scripted by some GAA diehard worried about rugby's increasing appeal as a rival game.

Still, we'll always have the memory of Sexton in Paris. Fans as yet unborn will watch that ball fly between the posts and wish they'd seen it happen in real time. Nothing will dim the lustre of that moment.

The game itself is a different thing. We probably won't know whether the optimist or the pessimist was right till we've played England and the Six Nations has ended.

Was Saturday a defining moment or a grim warning? I'll tell you on Paddy's Night.

Irish Independent

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