Wednesday 17 January 2018

Painful rewrite avoided by sticking to the script

Paris decision-making shows Ireland can cope in tight corners, says Brendan Fanning

Joe Schmidt: 'After the Italian game I got doubts about what we were doing. I'm always doubting what we're doing and I'm always trying to solve things.'
Joe Schmidt: 'After the Italian game I got doubts about what we were doing. I'm always doubting what we're doing and I'm always trying to solve things.'
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

It's amazing how much stuff goes through your head when you don't have time to think. There may be lots of places where this dawns on you, but in this parish the closing seconds of a Test match offer themselves up as a textbook case. Well, they do if it's a late kick-off that demands an early report and things are not going according to plan.

Here's how it works: the scourge of the Sunday hack is that combination of a late kick-off and an early edition. So you write as the game unfolds with the clear instruction that you press the send button literally within a couple of minutes of the final whistle. In this scenario, 50-point margins at half-time are good for business. Games that are close going down the final straight are not good. And games that require a photo finish are about as welcome as an envelope with a harp on the front.

So let's rewind to last Saturday evening in Paris. The clock read 78.48 when referee Steve Walsh referred upstairs the touch down for Damien Chouly. Better still, let's go back to 77.25, for in the overall scheme of things – the process of rescuing from the gutter a report that had as its theme Ireland's marvellous Championship win – the extra 1.23 made no difference.

That was the point when referee Walsh let replacement Sebastien Vahaamahina come in from the side to slow Ireland's ruck ball, whereupon he whistled Ireland for holding on. That was when the first wave of nausea started.

It rose steadily as Rob Kearney launched a garryowen that was gobbled up in blue on the halfway line offering France two wide channels to attack; got worse again as Maxime Medard was hauled down seven metres from the Ireland line. You looked up, saw the width on the French attack and oddly enough that's when you knew you weren't going to have to apologise to the man in front for ruining the back of his coat. Instead the urge was to curl up in a ball and pretend none of this was happening.

This was motivated not by an undying loyalty to the cause of Ireland, rather to two things: to get a semi-coherent report over on time; and to be able to write sensibly about the impact of losing a game that had been almost won.

And that was a challenge, for the combination of having lost in the endgame to New Zealand, and then to do the same thing to France – the two nations who have bullied us more than any other in the world game – would have meant owning up to a problem that needed fixing by a mental health specialist. And given the positive impact made by Joe Schmidt in his first season, no one wanted to be doing that.

It is five days after the event, and the same Joe Schmidt is reflecting on it all. Specifically, the moment when Jean Marc Doussain left short a kick to touch – the one Kearney fielded – but the light at the end of the tunnel suddenly started tooting like an oncoming train.

"Yeah, and especially it's on his left foot and the right hand touchline so he's going to get that nice arc and he's got a massive spiral punt," Schmidt says. "And he didn't get it right. But the one thing I'd say is that in the New Zealand endgame we didn't get one thing right, and got penalised. Then we got about seven other things wrong, in our system errors, and on defence (against France) we didn't make, or we didn't have, that domino effect of errors. There was a loose kick, or there was a defensive error, but other people stayed in the system and stayed accurate enough that we managed to keep them out."

There was a discernible difference in the way Ireland tried to close the game on Saturday however. There was more structure to how they went about trying to wrap things up – a bit more sophisticated for sure than pick and jam. Schmidt gets animated in the detail.

"I felt we tried to do a similar sort of thing," he says. "There was a great decision: I thought Ian Madigan's kick for touch was bang on – he got good distance but he didn't go for too much? We got the drive, bang on – that's exactly what we were looking for – then what we were probably looking for was the dart on the short side and put it in there and force (Brice) Dulin to come in and trap him in that corner.

"I thought the strategy was good but we were forced to play off the maul. We were going to go to the midfield – open up the angles and put it back down there, because the one thing you can't do against a big, physical French defence is you can't try to play the ball, not for five minutes or six minutes. So I thought the strategy was good, but then the All Black one, with 10 minutes to go, I thought it was so superbly played: we put the ball in behind them, contest it, (Julian) Savea knocks on. We get the scrum, we put the ball in behind them and force Beauden Barrett into touch. Have the lineout, drive it, get so close to scoring, get the penalty and there we are – there's the game!

"Now we didn't get the endgame we were looking for there, but that penalty's (for Johnny Sexton) on the 15-metre line. You'd normally get those with your eyes closed. I think maybe there's a bit of luck that you need sometimes to get the right bounce or whatever, but I think the strategy that the lads had (against France) was really well played. It was a pressure cooker time for someone like Ian Madigan to have to come on and try to play that strategy, and talking to Paul O'Connell afterwards he was saying: 'Did we manage that right?' And I said: 'Yeah we did it really well'. And he agreed and gave credit to Ian in that he'd made a couple of good calls. We put ourselves in the right positions to look after the ball and put a little bit of pressure on, but do it on our terms down into their half as opposed to playing in our half where you can always get turned over and penalised."

In order to arrive to the endgame with a valid ticket you have to invest in your approach. Ireland are now at a point where their starter plays – the moves they use off set-piece to get them going forward – have real finishing potential. It is a huge plus for the coach in his dealings with the players that what he promises them on the training field actually pans out on match day.

In Schmidt's case, this is critical because he was nervous at the outset about how to cope with the 'Irishness' aspect of the international job. He knew enough to know that if he pushed the wrong emotional buttons on that console then he would come across like an extra from Finian's Rainbow.

"I'm a bit of a one-trick pony," he claims, unconvincingly. "I've only got what I've got. I'm not good at the emotional thing. I don't think that clearly if I'm overly emotionally aroused. I think I'm better if I'm a little bit angry – I'm always motivated but a little bit angry, but really clear in exactly what I want to try to do to that guy or in this situation or whatever. That's not the same for every player and that is why I leave players alone to be honest.

"I think Paul O'Connell is an inspirational character. When he speaks people listen. When he speaks it is genuinely from the heart and he's a hell of a lot better at emotionally charging people. I'm more about making sure that you're lucid, that your decision-making is good, that those sort of things are good because if you get out and you play purely on emotion – with the risks that are involved in playing purely on emotion where you make an error because you ran too early or you ran too hard – you hit a guy a little bit late because you're so fired up he's let the ball go but you take him out anyway. You can very quickly get yourself into trouble. I think it's incredibly important to be really lucid."

Schmidt has got the balance just right between giving the players a technical template, and making sure they are clued in mentally to follow it. You can't deliver that sort of stuff unless you believe in yourself, and Schmidt's progress from New Zealand to France to Ireland, developing an outstanding winning record on the second two legs, is what sustains him now.

"It certainly has to be honest given me more confidence," he says. "I grew up in a town of 1,600 people. I was a pretty small-town kid. Playing provincial rugby in New Zealand was the big thing and that was pretty exciting. Being involved in Ranfurly Shield challenges or playing against a touring international team, that sort of thing was fantastic but I always had a reservation coming from a small town (that) other people knew more or were bigger and better. Coming over, both being in France and here, has given me a lot more personal confidence because I got asked a question lately on the back of the New Zealand game or on the back of the England game: 'Did you get doubts about what you were doing?'

"After the Italian game I got doubts about what we were doing. I'm always doubting what we're doing and I'm always trying to solve things, problems that haven't existed yet but I perceive that if we do this next time and they do that well that's going to be a problem. I'd better try to get a solution to that before the problem comes up. I think sometimes I'd have to apologise to my wife – I'm hard to live with. There's times without revealing too much that I just don't come to bed for a long time because I've got it in front of me and I sort of have six or seven bits of paper with scrawls on them about solutions to if they do this or they do that.

"Without being an amateur psychologist, I am always trying to prove that I can do the job because I always doubt that I can. That's probably why I know how lucky I am to have such a good staff. If I didn't have such a good staff I think it would massively erode my confidence in what I do because having the coaching staff I know those bits are taken care of really, really well."

You wonder what the effect would have been had it all gone south in those closing minutes last weekend. Despite Schmidt's praise for the way his team got over the finish line, one of their number conceded privately that he was relieved there was no review last week. Don't worry, it's coming. Or rather, be concerned that it's on the way, which of course is exactly the way the coach wants him to feel.

The atmosphere in which that review will be conducted, however will be positive, because we are talking about a happy ending here, not a calamity. And that's what it would have been labelled had it gone wrong.

As we waited for word back from the TMO in Paris last weekend, happy endings were far from our tired minds.

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