Sunday 17 February 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Ireland boss must fill holes exposed by Jones' tactics'

Rival coaches will be poring over footage of last week's comprehensive defeat to England

Centre of attention: Chris Farrell passes to Bundee Aki at training in Carton House. Photo: Sportsfile
Centre of attention: Chris Farrell passes to Bundee Aki at training in Carton House. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

The world is watching Ireland through new eyes this spring; in particular the international rugby coaches and analysts looking for an edge they can take to the World Cup.

Joe Schmidt's side remain the No 2-ranked team in the world despite last week's defeat to England, a mantle that keeps them right up there as contenders for the Webb Ellis trophy.

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One loss, no matter how troubling, doesn't destroy their status as one of the best teams in the world.

The nature of that defeat, however, has exposed vulnerabilities that those coaches will have been poring over all week with relish.

Eddie Jones won the battle in the coaches' boxes hands down last Saturday and in doing so he handed his rivals a handy 'how-to' guide to beating Schmidt's team. Sure, Robbie Henshaw is unlikely to be in the No 15 shirt in a World Cup quarter-final, while Ireland's forwards are unlikely to be over-powered in the same way again, the back-three rarely have two bad games in the air in a season, and Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton will surely shake off the rust.

Still, after they beat the All Blacks to complete a near-perfect year, this was an exposition of the flaws.

The narrow defence that reappears every now and again reared its ugly head, the inability to adjust on the run when behind on the scoreboard was another foible.

Chasing games has never been a strong point of this team, but Schmidt rejected the idea that he doesn't have a 'plan B' yesterday.

"I'd be interested to know how they would describe our plan A," he said.

"I do think we always get a lot of advice. There wouldn't be too many weeks that go by that I don't get a letter suggesting somebody play here, or suggesting our set plays, or suggesting something.

"And that's when we are winning. When you lose, you expect at least three letters. People will be saying a lot about how we are playing, about a plan A, B, C or D and what they look like, so I'm not sure how they summarise plan A.

"I think we have a very good game (plan). We are strong off set-piece, we play a varied kicking game and we try to vary our defensive game.

"I guess I will leave them to do their analysis and we will keep on doing what we are doing and try to improve."

After he had coached Wales to victory over Ireland in 2017, Rob Howley thought the idea that a Schmidt side could be predictable was hilarious.

Preparing to face the New Zealander's teams is one of the hardest challenges in coaching because of Ireland's capacity to shift their shape and throw new pictures at the opposition.

But what England showed was that when they lose collisions and operate off average ball, they cease to become anything special.

In these pages last week we outlined Ireland's ruthlessness when they get into the opposition 22, but England simply shut that door in their faces.

According to Simon Gleave at Gracenote Sports, Ireland managed three visits to the 22 over the 80 minutes, collecting 17 of their 20 points from those incursions.

Limiting Ireland's territory is an obvious goal, but Jones' team did what few others manage.

Schmidt has spoken this week about the flaws that materialised against England and it is clear that he thinks they can be fixed.

Yesterday, he wondered aloud if his team needed a nastier edge but concluded that he was proud of their ability to stay within the laws. You can be sure the kick-chasers will be more aggressive with any blockers tomorrow though.

Likewise, the tight five will have been reminded over and over again about the number of dominant tackles England made.

Before this season, that statistic was not widely available and Ireland wouldn't have chosen last Saturday for the big reveal; 48-6 was quite a landslide.

Scotland are a different proposition, less heft and more flair - a side who can expose new issues, as they did last year in defeat.

They will be Ireland's first World Cup opponents, Japan are next and then Russia and Samoa round off the group.

Ireland will be confident of emerging, but it is the quarter-final opposition who are most likely to benefit from Jones' tutorial.

Rassie Erasmus is expected to be in the coaching booth; a man who already knows lots about this country after his short stay at Munster and a coach who has the kind of big men who produce dominant tackles for breakfast.

As they respond to last week's loss, Ireland must show that they haven't been figured out; that last week was a blip.

Because every chink in their armour is being consumed by their rivals who are ready to end their World Cup dreams.

Irish Independent

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