Sunday 24 February 2019

David Kelly: 'Jones punctures Schmidt's invincibility aura with tactics more Irish than the Irish themselves'

England head coach Eddie Jones. Photo: Getty Images
England head coach Eddie Jones. Photo: Getty Images
David Kelly

David Kelly

What if there is no tomorrow? March 16th, Cardiff. Wales summoning a spirit of 2015 which, at times, eerily seemed familiar just two days ago. Lose there and there will be no tomorrow. A title defence in ruins.

Or October 20, the potential of a World Cup quarter-final against South Africa, where a repeat of Saturday's rudderless display in Tokyo will see Ireland eliminated.

There will be no tomorrow then, either; another World Cup failure will beckon.

This is the challenge facing Joe Schmidt's Ireland now.

But the inevitable response to be expected from a team who remain world-class, victories against Scotland, Italy and France, will not of themselves answer the questions that so stumped them on Saturday.

They can only be answered against those other current giants of world rugby, Wales and South Africa, the only other two teams capable of matching England's awesome display, what Schmidt described as "a simmering physical intensity collectively delivered that made it a suffocating place to be".

The concern for the coach and team is not necessarily the defeat, or the physical punishment; either are possible when a quality outfit, like England, can select their strongest side and regain something of the aura that they had assumed until Ireland punctured it here two years ago.

The anxiety stems from the malaise that crept into all manners of the performance, undermining a notable and bold selection, disrupting the once imperious control of the half-back generals, and a glaring lack of alternative to a lauded structure of play.

The more England stayed to their pre-determined script, the more it seemed Ireland strayed from theirs, as their sense of certainty was cruelly and brutishly exposed by the marauding English.

"We stuck to the game-plan," says Eddie Jones.

"We went out with a plan that we thought would work against Ireland and we stuck at it.

"There were times where we could have gone away from it, where we could have got seduced by the way the game was going, but we didn't. We stuck at it. That's what really pleased me."

He applies a golfing metaphor to illustrate the glaring disparity between the sides.

"If you look at how a Test match is structured, I don't know how long that game was but they're usually about 100 minutes and the ball is in play about 35 of them.

"So it's what you do with those 65 minutes in between. It's like playing golf. Golf takes four hours but you hit the ball for maybe five minutes.

"Good golfers are good in between the shots and now in rugby it's such an important part of the game that you have to be good in play.

"We are practising that pretty hard, the ability to refocus. If you do a positive thing you can lose focus, if you do a negative thing you can lose focus."

England maintained their focus; Ireland, for all the leadership qualities littered on the field, and the coaching nous off it, simply could not.

Schmidt has possibly never been asked what it would be like to coach against his Irish team; on Saturday, he would have understood exactly what it felt like.

He has also never been asked what strategy he would devise to overcome an opposition outfit who played like his Ireland at their best.

On Saturday, he discovered that he did not have the answer. He may only have two more opportunities to do that this year.

"It was two good teams playing but when you get behind on the scoreboard you have to play differently," said Jones.

The problem was Ireland didn't know how to play differently. In the second half, Ireland struggled to pass the England 22; all kicking, passing and carrying routes denied.

The opening bows of the second half saw a series of short, dinked midfield kicks which didn't work; then Ireland started playing an overly ambitious wide game, although only a score down while in the third quarter.

It smacked of muddled thinking and frazzled execution, a rare combination to the utter conviction that Ireland had showed only a few months ago against the best team in world rugby,

Forced to chase from the off, rather than build on early dominance; Ireland were faced with a foreign dilemma; it is perhaps no coincidence that they have now lost 20 successive games where they have been trailing at half-time by a point or more.

Ireland can only prosper when they score first, creating the platform for the stifling possession game that, yes, can bore the shit out of the opposition.

But such relentlessness evades them when they fall behind. Argentina, Wales, New Zealand and now England have all found a way in recent years to punctuate the Irish aura.

"That's the reality of Test match rugby," says Jones. "That's what you always try to force the opposition to do. You try to get in front and make them play differently because they don't practise that and then it becomes hard and then you get errors as we saw."

It will be fascinating to see how Schmidt and his team react to this stunning set-back.

This defeat will not define them. The response will. At least they have a tomorrow.

Irish Independent

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