Saturday 14 December 2019

Title now a very long shot for us, admits Schmidt

Coach defends attacking strategy as ‘frustrating’ refereeing decisions leave management baffled

Jonathan Sexton left the fray with a recurrence of the neck problem he suffered against Wales. Photo: Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton left the fray with a recurrence of the neck problem he suffered against Wales. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Joe Schmidt has conceded that a third successive Six Nations title is probably beyond his team after this ugly, dispiriting defeat to France that leaves him with a costly injury toll and a host of big questions to answer.

Already missing key men, he is likely to be without Dave Kearney and Sean O'Brien for the trip to Twickenham on Saturday week and could add Mike McCarthy to that list after he went off with a serious-looking head injury at the Stade de France.

Schmidt did his best to hold back from criticising referee Jaco Peyper who he felt had denied Ireland a try and also failed to adequately punish a series of French offences such as high tackles, neck rolls and a nasty-elbow from Yoann Maestri on Johnny Sexton.

"Johnny knows what to expect when he comes here," was the head coaches' dry assessment of the treatment meted out to his out-half, but he will also wonder about how Ireland's forwards allowed it all to happen without stamping it out themselves. That was when Paul O'Connell and Peter O'Mahony were missed badly.


While he won't publicly criticise his players, the video analysis room could be an unpleasant place this week after a first half in which Ireland passed up several opportunities to build a score that would have put the result beyond a France team who were woeful in the first half, but whose bench possessed enough quality to change the game.

Schmidt himself will look at how his team have now scored three points in two second halves against Wales and France and how they have squandered positions of relative strength.

Yet, for all the calls for change that have followed a poor performance in a woeful game, he is unlikely to begin experimenting ahead of the trip to Twickenham next week.

"We're a week-to-week team and the titles that we've won in the last two years have never been discussion points. The next game has been the discussion point," he said of his team's fading chance of winning the title.

"There's no hiding our disappointment. Mathematically, there's an outside chance but realistically we know it's a very, very outside chance.

"For us, it will be build towards Twickenham and put together the best performance we can over there. The first thing is to get the medical assessment and put together the players who are ready to go."

The medics are in for a difficult few days ahead of Ireland's camp in Mullingar this week.

O'Brien re-injured his hamstring, while Dave Kearney damaged his AC joint and looks set for a prolonged spell on the sidelines. McCarthy had to be stretchered off after a long period of treatment, while Sexton (below) also left the fray with a recurrence of the neck problem he suffered against Wales.

While Mike Ross and Cian Healy will come into the reckoning after getting through their return for Leinster against Zebre unscathed, there is plenty for the coach to ponder.

Without a long list of first-choice players, he is trying to win games with players who have limited experience at this level and it is proving difficult.

"You're always rebuilding and you're always trying new players and trying to broaden the depth of the squad," he said.

"With where we were it's incredibly frustrating that we couldn't quite get our nose in front today at the business end but strategy-wise they put it together pretty well in that first half and it's just disappointing that we didn't quite get the reward for that.

"I think when you don't have experience you tend to panic a little bit, you might try too hard."

Schmidt's attacking strategy has come in for plenty of criticism, but he stood over his plan. The problem was the execution.

"You saw the strategy in the first half, it allowed us to get pressure on them and maybe we felt we didn't finish," he said.

"We felt we were pretty unlucky that he (Peyper) didn't at least have a look at that try Dave Kearney scored, and we felt the pressure we exerted on them frustrated them and caused them to commit errors and offer us penalties but maybe we just feel that we didn't get enough on the back of either of those things.

"We didn't deliver quite what we needed and maybe we didn't get the decisions that we thought we otherwise might have."

He will forensically review the tape and wonder whether a more conservative approach might even have been needed.

Ireland kept their ground-game going for much of the second-half, when perhaps they might have looked to their maul to grind down the French. While Sexton did put up some up-and-unders, one wonders whether a persistent kicking strategy might have reaped some reward.

Ultimately, however, the losing of the game came down to the scrum where Rabah Slimani and Eddy Ben Arous came off the bench and caused untold damage.

Again, the topic is likely to form part of Schmidt's submission to the head of referees Joel Jutge.

"We'll be having a close look at the scrums, when Rabah Slimani and Eddy Ben Arous came on the square scrums went out the window and all sorts of angles came into play," he said.

"That's incredibly frustrating and it makes it very difficult to scrum against a team like that. If the only solution that's being offered is stability what does that mean if those things aren't being watched for. It just made it very difficult.


"The major frustration was a scrum we had just out from their line that for seven seconds was slowly turning and I think we stayed as straight as we could during that scrum and unfortunately conceded a penalty.

"So there were those frustrations, when that happens and you've got a bit of inexperience in the tight five around Rory (Best), it's hard for him to get solutions if those things are permitted."

For the captain himself, it was a difficult afternoon as he attempted to straddle the line between questioning the referee and annoying him.

"At one stage I asked the question how many attacking penalties are we going to get here without further sanction," he said.

"He said he was keeping a close eye on it. There's a fine line between badgering the referee and keeping pressure on him. The one on Johnny he said the TMO was happy it was just a penalty.

"The one Dave Kearney, you want to keep the pressure on, but ultimately they are making the decisions and you have to stay on the right side of him and not badger him too much.

"Definitely any time we felt we got a lot of momentum the ball was being killed. We knew we wanted to keep it in hand and play phases and keep pressure on them. To have that cut short was definitely disappointing."

Things won't get any easier at Twickenham where Eddie Jones will look to inflict maximum pain on a wilting Irish pack. It was always going to be a difficult campaign and Saturday showed just why.

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