Sport Six Nations

Saturday 23 February 2019

Sinéad Kissane: 'Schmidt's well-oiled machine still needs emotion to run at its best'

 

Charlton’s team was about pressure, Schmidt’s team is about process. Photo: Sportsfile
Charlton’s team was about pressure, Schmidt’s team is about process. Photo: Sportsfile

Sinéad Kissane

On the Monday before Ireland's Six Nations game with England in March last year Christy Moore was in the Ireland team room at Carton House singing ballads and playing the guitar.

The juxtaposition of Christy performing for a team which includes a generation reared on rugby analytics initially didn't seem to fit. Camp Ireland can sometimes be portrayed as a robotic laboratory where every movement is monitored and drained for analysis.

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But the idea of Christy singing and stirring the soul on the week of an England game seemed like the perfect antidote.

One of the songs Christy sang that evening was 'Joxer Goes To Stuttgart'. History is likely to judge that the two most influential national men's teams of our time were Jack Charlton's Republic of Ireland and Schmidt's Ireland.

Charlton's team was about pressure, Schmidt's team is about process. Put 'em under pressure and Give it a Lash Jack were emotional call-to-arms when what Charlton also had were incredibly talented players. There are also similarities between Charlton's team and the Ireland rugby team which won the Grand Slam ten years ago this March. Both were breakthrough teams with huge characters and you might even be able to reel off the names in those teams quicker than the current sides.

One of the reasons why Ronan O'Gara and Paul O'Connell make great pundits is because they have an emotional energy for the game. One of my favourite O'Connell-isms is from Munster's 2006 Heineken Cup pool game against Sale when he spoke to his team-mates in the Thomond Park dressing-room beforehand and said: "They should see what it means to you. The people who know you best should see that you're different today."

Different times. The interest in any 'fear of God' type oratory has been replaced with an unprecedented interest in Schmidt's video sessions. The account that Schmidt tore strips off his team in their Christmas catch-up after the 2018 they had fuels this fascination.

We no longer hear about any inspirational or motivational talks given by players or coaches - one reason might be that they prefer to keep them private. But maybe it's because we also like to think that Irish rugby has moved on from an emotion-based game to one where players now depend on skill, detail and technical expertise.

"Irish teams used to rely on the passion and the emotion to win big games but I think now we trust our rugby to do it and that's a far more stable place in a winning environment," Vinny Hammond, one of Schmidt's performance analysts, said a few days after Ireland's Grand Slam victory last March. "It's so unstable to rely on emotion. I'd be far more comfortable relying on rugby knowledge and on players doing their jobs well."

The evolution of our national men's rugby team into one that can rely on skill and sophistication is something to be proud of. We had a history of being better when we're bitter, of feeling we needed to have a chip on our shoulder to get the best out of ourselves, of thinking that without emotion we were nothing. Now it's almost at the other end of the spectrum and that extends to the way we read a game with statistics becoming even more refined.

The official Six Nations stats now tell us not only how many tackles are made in a game but how 'dominant' they are (eight 'dominant' tackles for Ireland compared to 48 for England last Saturday) and not only how many passes but how many 'bad' passes there were (13 'bad' passes for Ireland compared to five for England). But amid all this stream of data and analytics, there was one simple quote from Schmidt which stood out above anything else.

"We were very quiet," Schmidt said about the atmosphere in the dressing-room before Ireland's defeat to England. "I didn't sense the same kind of energy levels that I would've noticed in November when the All Blacks came. And if you don't have those energy levels and that mental preparation done, it's pretty difficult to get a foothold back into the game. There's emotional energy that needs to be switched on collectively. It's very hard if that's not quite present to suddenly generate it."

There are plenty of reasons why Ireland lost: England got their tactical game-plan spot-on and Schmidt isn't going to give away any misgivings about his own. But what we traditionally expect from Ireland against England - the very base-line - is emotional energy. It seemed like the players almost expected the 'process' to automatically happen, as if they were, indeed, machines.

Plenty will be written about what happened the last time Ireland played Scotland in a Six Nations game in Murrayfield in 2017. Two years previously, Ireland went there after a very disappointing defeat to Wales in the Millennium Stadium in the second last game of the 2015 Six Nations.

The day before they played Scotland, the Ireland players had a light session. Instead of being drained from that defeat, the players looked re-energised with Paul O'Connell laughing his head off. They retained the Six Nations title the next day.

Rugby isn't just about stats and analysis and detail. If the emotion isn't right, the result is a performance like last weekend's. It was a costly lesson. Maybe it will be the Ireland captain or one of the vice-captains who will say something similar to O'Connell: the people who know you best should see that you're different today.

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