Thursday 5 December 2019

Three reasons to be cheerful and fearful ahead of Six Nations crunch against England

Twickenham no place for revolution but squad must adapt, writes David Kelly

CJ Stander in his man of the match display on his Ireland debut against Wales (SPORTSFILE)
CJ Stander in his man of the match display on his Ireland debut against Wales (SPORTSFILE)
Joe Schmidt should have the option of picking Simon Zebo who will offer an eye for a gap against England’s defence. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

There is a thin line between fearlessness and recklessness.

Some people think that to be fearless means exuding loud bravado and colourful actions; not always.

Ruthless efficiency and character-filled commitment to the task at hand can demonstrate fearlessness.

A leap from a cliff can be fearless; for some of us, it is merely the act of rising from one's bed.

Ireland have been fearless under Joe Schmidt in winning successive Six Nations titles; ruthless, determined, single-minded, oblivious to outsiders. Winners.

A fearlessness that required forethought, planning, intense analysis and, lest we forget, risk-taking. Deliberate risk-taking, perhaps. But Ireland had the players, too. They earned the right to be fearless.

Now is not the time to be reckless, however, as Twickenham looms.

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Fearlessness can embrace a recognition of one's limitations, too. Schmidt has had to deal with these restrictions - in hours, rather than weeks - on international duty, unlike at Leinster where he honed his multi-talented and multi-national squad with daily rigour.

Now, with the players left at Schmidt's disposal, he may have no option but to begin the most hated concept in the coaching manual - 'experimentation' - as Ireland undergo the second most-hated word, 'transition'.

Do not expect anything to change at Twickenham this weekend, however. Italy and Scotland will suffice.

Then again, Declan Kidney, according to some barstool geniuses the most conservative Irish coach ever (apart from his predecessor and successor, of course!) once gambled on youth and soon was out on his ear. Scotland and Italy did for him.

Then again, some may argue that his decisions were reckless, rather than fearless. There is a difference, you know.

When in London, three key words stay in your head. Mind the gap.

Finding the balance is key for Schmidt in a fixture where humbling lessons have been dished out frequently on either side.

Reasons to be cheerful

1) Breakdown, shakedown, you're busted

Sadly, Ireland's "most explosive back-row" © since the Grand Slam didn't complete the first half last weekend but those who remained did manage to retain a slight upper hand thanks to their ability to pick and choose when to compete on opposition ball.

Schmidt may revert to the trio - Tommy O'Donnell, CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip - who destroyed the best combination in the championship in round one, and England possess weaknesses here that be exploited.

Italy's counter-rucking showed the way and England's propensity to isolate runners - viz Billy Vunipola being smashed after prematurely exiting a maul - will be targeted.

Against Scotland, they were prone to send wingers as second men into attacking rucks; their ruck success was the worst on record in that game and Ireland can seize the initiative in this enclave.

Dejected Ireland players, from left, Conor Murray, Jamie Heaslip, Donnacha Ryan, Fergus McFadden and Tommy O'Donnell, after the game. Photo: Sportsfile

2) Scrum measure of comfort

In 2012, Ireland rugby supporters prayed to the Almighty that veteran Mike Ross would be able to last 80 minutes against a powerful English scrum.

In 2016, Ireland rugby supporters will pray to the Almighty that veteran Mike Ross can last 80 minutes against a powerful English scrum. What an indictment of the IRFU!

Ross will buttress the scrum; he rarely needs warm-up time and, indeed, probably should have played against the French.

And, unlike the utterly naive endgame beneath the Paris posts, Ireland need leadership, they need cuteness and, if all else fails - including the referee - they just need to cheat better. All scrums contain cheaters and Ireland's pleas for mitigation in Paris sounded soft.

3) Cutting edge can sharpen blunt attack

The main reason Ireland have faltered since winning their second title is precisely because they abandoned the Murrayfield mind-set that sealed it.

They have reverted to battering down doors instead of unpicking locks; it is no wonder that when Ireland do get into positions of opportunity, they are too physically and mentally exhausted to capitalise.

Little wonder. Against Wales, they made a championship record 170 tackles; there were another 151 last week. You can't fault them for effort - but you can fault them for too much damned effort!

Without side-stepping visionaries like Luke Fitzgerald, Simon Zebo or Keith Earls, Ireland resorted to narrow phased play and occasional kicking against France.

Earls and Zebo should hopefully return and, at least, offer some sense of evasion, an eye for a shoulder or a gap against an English wolf pack defence that, nevertheless, possesses lone wolves who shoot in defence.

The tiring attacking tactics deployed against France will not suffice.

P62 Schmidt should have.jpg
Ireland's Simon Zebo is tackled by Jamie Roberts during last Sunday's Six Nations match against Wales. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA.

Reasons to be fearful

1) Can they still kick it? Erm, not any more. But England can!

If anyone wants to antagonise Schmidt, just tell him that his team kicks too much; Eddie Jones has already done so, beginning with last week's 'Aussie Rules' jibe.

Coming from an English side which has kicked the ball more than most teams in Gaelic football, this is a tad rich but indicative of Jones' mischievous mind games.

England, against the two worst teams in the competition, have kicked 77 times, nearly once every two minutes in a game; when they get the ball, you can bet 3/1 they will put boot to it.

Ireland, unfairly lampooned as Garryowen mullockers, have played two of the championship contenders, yet only kick away one in four possessions.

The danger is that England do it so often because they do it well; against Scotland, they primed the strategy for between the two 40s and, from nine attempts in this zone, they created a try, three scrums and an attack.

In more dangerous territory against Italy, kicks led directly to two tries, one missed opportunity and a five-metre scrum.

Ireland's kicking game has arguably deteriorated, which is why they're doing less of it. Aside from Robbie Henshaw's wonderful early take last week, Ireland lost the next three contestables.

And, despite some notable probes, the tactical kicking was awry from both halves, culminating in the egregious Ian Madigan error which is likely to see him dropped this week.

2) Sexton conundrum

As analysed within these pages on Saturday, the recurring inability of Ireland's most influential player to complete international matches has become a glaring issue - quite aside from the obvious concerns of those of us who fear for the long-term health of the player.

While there are complicated solutions offered by former Ireland captains that continue to be ignored - tackling technique being the obvious one - a simpler selection issue could help alleviate the problem in the immediate future.

Paddy Jackson remains the form No 10 in Ireland, is a regular there unlike his international rival Madigan and is committed to the IRFU structure, again unlike his Leinster rival.

Ireland and Schmidt need to begin now the process of installing him not only as Sexton's understudy, charged with the natural responsibility of being able to close out matches, but also a future challenger to Sexton's untrammelled pre-eminence.

Relying on just one player to man a position is not good for anyone's health and you would have thought Irish rugby would have copped on to this particular lesson by now.

'It can’t be easy for Sexton at the moment' Photo: Sportsfile

3) Fear is overcoming fearlessness

Ireland's mental state is just as important as their physical state; critics are painting Schmidt as some Moneyball obsessive designing every prescriptive play on a computer game during sleepless nights.

His template may be necessarily rigid compared to Leinster, where he had more control and access to players, but not entirely inflexible; there are almost daily tweaks to how the side plays.

However, in recent months, the players have become inhibited for some reason, refusing to take chances.

If the coach is, as alleged, more fond of telling them what they are not allowed do, then perhaps he should now place more emphasis on what they are allowed to do.

But if it's not the coach, then it must be the players; if they are unable to play the game as it unfolds, then it is they who need to loosen up.

As a mantra, being ordered not to lose the ball in the opposition 22 is a decent design for life; when the mantra becomes so paralysing that you become unable to use that ball creatively, then perhaps less so.

Schmidt has always told his players to be adaptable; can the New Zealander tell himself to be so too? A team reflects its coach and this one needs to loosen up a little.

Returning to Mullingar, where Schmidt really began this coaching lark a quarter-century ago, may have proved an inspiration as Irish rugby takes stock after successive World Cup, Champions Cup and now Six Nations failures.

It's time for everyone to be fearless.

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