Friday 18 October 2019

Six Nations report card: How Joe Schmidt’s men have rated so far

Talking Point

Team of us: Joe Schmidt and coaches Richie Murphy, Simon Easterby, Greg Feek and Andy Farrell have plenty to think about before Ireland resume their Six Nations campaign. Photo: Sportsfile
Team of us: Joe Schmidt and coaches Richie Murphy, Simon Easterby, Greg Feek and Andy Farrell have plenty to think about before Ireland resume their Six Nations campaign. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

The headmaster is in session and as his team take their few days off for a breather before re-assembling on Thursday, Joe Schmidt will be diving deep to assess his team's two games.

The Six Nations title defence has not gone to plan and the way things are shaping up it will soon be dead in the water.

Ireland are six points behind England who enjoy a 51-point cushion on the points difference charts and ride the crest of a wave into Cardiff.

After his side had bounced back from their defeat to England in Edinburgh, Joe Schmidt admitted that the World Cup was now the big focus for him and his team.

He has enjoyed three Championship victories in his five previous attempts and nothing that will happen in the next month will affect his legacy. Japan is a different matter.

Injury has forced his hand when it comes to squad building, while poor form has hit a couple of key players.

Like a Leaving Cert student going through the mock exams, the team is learning a fair bit about where it is and has just about enough time to catch up on the areas of weakness.

Schmidt will go through the two performances to date with a fine-tooth comb before presenting his findings to a squad full of players desperate to make the plane to Japan.

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So, what areas need real improvement if Ireland are to fulfil their promise in Japan.

Defence: B

Against England, Andy Farrell's defence only conceded two line-breaks but came out on the end of a four-try defeat.

That spoke volumes for the way Eddie Jones' team cleverly approached facing the feared machine by taking the ball in tight and winning big collisions, while probing the Irish back-field with excellent kicks that stretched the back-three and caused panic.

Two of the tries conceded, including Scotland's sole score on Saturday, came from Irish intercepts, two are directly from kicks and only Jonny May's effort after 90 seconds could be put down to a front-line error.

Scotland asked Ireland questions, but the defence held all the answers.

They drew strength from that area and grew from there.

Attack: D

So much of Ireland's attack relies on deception and the team has not brought their usual energy levels and focus to the games so far.

Everyone is supposed to be an option in Joe Schmidt system and 'animation' is key. In this Six Nations, it has been easy to predict which Irish player is going to receive possession and both England and Scotland managed to put in some dominant tackles as a result.

That has put them on the back foot and, with their passing letting them down, it has been hard to generate the kind of attacking momentum that saw them score so freely last season.

There were improvements in Murrayfield where a sharp Rob Kearney made three excellent second-half breaks, one of which led to Keith Earls' try and another could have set up a score for Jacob Stockdale or Chris Farrell.

Stockdale's first-half try was the high point of the Irish attack executing well, but that sort of clarity and accuracy has been lacking.

Breakdown: D

The strength of Ireland's game has so often been based on quick ball, while their defensive breakdown work has been part of their solid defence.

They couldn't lay a glove on the English ruck, but while there were no official breakdown turnovers against Scotland they did cause disruption and slowed the ball down and Ultan Dillane forced a late penalty at the ruck.

Still, Ireland only managed to get the ball out in less than three seconds on half of their ball and they'll want better as they go. That would infuse the attack with a better supply.

Set-piece: B+

A source of strength in times of stress, Ireland's lineout is running well despite the revolving door of second-rows and the scrum has been strong.

Schmidt would probably have preferred a more destructive effort against England but Ireland did step it up against the Scots.

Their dominance of that area certainly helped grind the opposition down and earned a couple of important penalties.

Aside from that one shaky throw against England, Rory Best has been pinpoint in his accuracy out of touch. However, Ireland's lineout needs to improve when protecting the ball once the jumper has come back down as Scotland and England managed to disrupt the maul set-up.

They showed against England that their drive can be hard to stop when it gets going, but that's been all-too infrequent.

Kicking game: F

A constant strength under Schmidt, this has been the strangest part of the Six Nations to date.

Ireland have gone to the air frequently, but the results have been mixed at best with Conor Murray's radar malfunctioning in particular.

The kick-chase has been poor to boot, which has meant that Ireland's lengthy box-kicks have invited dangerous opponents into the game.

With England offering a weekly masterclass in tactical kicking, this has been the big frustration of Ireland's campaign so far.

Squad depth: B+

Schmidt signalled his intention to use this window to build towards the World Cup when he selected Robbie Henshaw at full-back against England.

Whether he wanted to or not, injuries have forced his selection hand and he has learnt a lot about a number of players as a result.

He may have another look at Henshaw as a back-up No 15, but he has learnt that Quinn Roux can cope with the pressure of calling the lineout in a big game, while Joey Carbery got almost an hour running a Six Nations game away from home. It wasn't perfect, but he managed his way through adversity and came out the other side having played his part in a win.

Jack Conan is another who excelled in CJ Stander's absence, while Chris Farrell also impressed.

The title may be a fading dream, but Schmidt's options are broadening.

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