Monday 23 April 2018

New-look Ireland must learn to be ruthless and stop coughing up leads

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Over the course of Joe Schmidt's 28 games in charge, Ireland have let a lead of 13 or more points slip three times.

The first was that fateful afternoon in 2013 when the All Blacks hauled in a 19-point head start and claimed a famous win with the last kick of the game; the second came a year later when Australia came from 17 points down to level only for Johnny Sexton to kick Ireland to victory.

On Sunday, Wales found themselves in the kind of hole that most teams visiting the Aviva Stadium during the Kiwi's time in charge don't get out of.

The two best teams in the world had been able to arrest Ireland's early momentum in Dublin, but everyone else succumbed when the two-time Six Nations champions got a head start.

Everyone wondered what impact the loss of so many of the men who earned those successive Championships would have and perhaps it manifested itself best in the fact that Wales were back within three points at half-time.

Schmidt was upbeat after the game, but beneath the positivity he would have been annoyed with his side's sloppiness during the last 12 minutes of the first half. Wales were always going to have a purple patch, but the ease with which they were able to score their 10 points will grate with the coach.


The headline issues were the harsh punishment of Keith Earls' tip-tackle on Liam Williams who contributed fully to his own downfall and the barely legal destruction of the Irish scrum by Rob Evans.

But a review of the tape shows key moments in the build-up that will frustrate Schmidt who will wonder how Ireland managed to botch two exits from their own '22 in succession.

First, Simon Zebo misjudged the flight of Conor Murray's box-kick and allowed Williams to return with interest and when the rusty Wales' full-back kicked the ball out, Murray's second clearance went out on the full.

That led to Rhys Priestland's first penalty and Ireland responded by attempting to put the squeeze on through the air. Andrew Trimble chased hard on a Sexton bomb, but Priestland managed to shift the ball to Taulupe Faletau who blew Mike McCarthy away as he got himself beyond the gainline.

That allowed Wales move the ball wide where a passive Irish line watched the ball get out to Jonathan Davies on the edge and he marched from midway inside his own half into Irish territory.

One big Alun-Wyn Jones carry later, the centre chipped in behind where Trimble found himself carrying the ball over his own line 43 seconds after he looked to be applying pressure on the Welsh on the edge of their '22.

Three scrums later and Ireland were under their own posts. Having put so much effort into building their lead, they had allowed Wales erode their good work with relative ease.

One wonders whether last year's Ireland would have let them back into it, but Schmidt can't dwell on that as he looks to build a new team in the post-O'Connell era.

Certainly, there were worrying signs that the defensive issues exposed so ruthlessly by Argentina in October are still present and the head coach conceded that there remains work to be done.

"We can't afford to be quite so narrow defensively against France," Schmidt said. "You can get away with that against Wales, but it's a real risk against the French. The width they played with was impressive at times.

"You're just going to have to be careful whatever you do, because they're audacious in what they're looking to deliver at the moment and if they make it work, gee, they could run up a big score in a hurry. We have to make sure we are very clinical with the ball and not to allow them too many opportunities."

For all that Ireland fronted up and performed well for most of Sunday's match, they will worry about their ability to win the collisions against a mammoth French side this weekend; even without Louis Picamoles whose Six Nations is over.

There are fears over Ireland's tight-five's capacity to physically dominate defences, while the scrum woes will need major surgery in the next week because for all the flux about Les Bleus, the one thing they still bring is tight-five power.

Jack McGrath can be absolved from any criticism after a mammoth 80 minutes, but Schmidt's decision to leave James Cronin in the stands for the duration despite the six-day turnaround told its own story about his fears over strength in depth.

Rory Best was a machine at ruck-time and Devin Toner had a fine game for the most part, but both were guilty of missing or soaking tackles at vital stages, while Nathan White and McCarthy looked out of their depth at times.

Schmidt will freshen up his pack this week and has the luxury of calling up Sean O'Brien, presuming he comes through training today unscathed. The prospect of the 'Tullow Tank' and CJ Stander combining is one that will frighten opponents.

For all the criticism over a perceived lack of style to Ireland's attacking game-plan, there was much to admire about the men in green with ball in hand on Sunday.

As with the World Cup, they tried to run rather than kick and, while offloads remained rare, there were cleverly worked moves, clean breaks and defenders beaten.

The problem, and it's been a recurring one during the last few seasons, was that the more phases Ireland went through the less chance they have of scoring.

They didn't score between the 28th and 74th minutes and when they did, it was Sexton's kick to draw level. Like the defeat in Cardiff last season, they had chances and let them slide and must work on their composure in the weeks to come.

"We pride ourselves on being a side that once we get our foot on the throat we finish teams and we can't let up," Trimble said. "That was a really good opportunity to really turn the screw on them and put them under a lot of pressure but this Welsh side don't go out the gate like that.

"They have a lot of character and they got back into the game and put us under a lot of pressure so it was tough. They put themselves in a position to win the game but we showed enough character to come back."

With all of the names missing from the team-sheet, a draw was a good result and the performance was encouraging; but Schmidt will want his new breed to learn from this positive experience so that the next time they build a lead they don't let it slip away so easily.

Irish Independent

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