Monday 22 October 2018

The Six Nations returns: All you need to know about Joe Schmidt's evolving Ireland

 

Joe Schmidt and (inset) James Ryan and Jacob Stockdale
Joe Schmidt and (inset) James Ryan and Jacob Stockdale
Joe Schmidt’s coaching staff may have changed but his top-down leadership and his desire for control has remained intact. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Cast your mind back to the Aviva Stadium in November and Ireland's blistering start against Argentina. Attacking from deep, keeping the ball in hand, offloading where possible and putting relentless pressure on the team that had dumped them out of the 2015 World Cup, this looked like a brave new dawn.

Joe Schmidt insists that game-plan was always there, but he now has the highly-skilled forwards to execute it and if he can continue to develop those talents under his command structure there are exciting times ahead.

Today, he begins his fifth Six Nations campaign in the job.

During that time, he has managed inevitable change. The last of the so-called 'golden generation' have retired and having managed the transition the head coach is now bringing a new breed of player through, one which has the potential to go further than the men who bestrode the world stage in the 2000s ever did.

This evening, they return to the site of one of the great days of Schmidt's tenure - the 2014 victory that clinched the title. Just six players who started that day take the field today: Rob Kearney, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Cian Healy, Rory Best and Peter O'Mahony.

James Ryan and Jacob Stockdale were 17 on the evening Brian O'Driscoll played his last game in green, schoolboys with dreams of one day taking that stage in their minds. Now, they are Six Nations starters.

Schmidt argues that the evolution is a myth. He arrived from Leinster with an impressive play-book good enough to win four trophies in three seasons and has continued to use and develop the game along those lines.

Conservatism

He has been accused, unfairly at times, of conservatism. Eddie Jones described the way Ireland play as "kick and clap" rugby but those who know him and his philosophy will say that he has always given the players a range of options to take and it is up to them to select the right one.

What has changed from an attacking point of view is that Ireland have a new breed of forward that has allowed them to expand their horizons, bringing a new dimension to their play.

His coaching staff has changed, but Schmidt's top-down leadership style and desire for control has remained firmly intact.

Perhaps the biggest change has been the drive for depth since the loss of five leading lights cost Ireland so dear against Argentina.

Along with his close colleague David Nucifora, Schmidt has tightened the IRFU's grip on overseas recruitment and hardened the stance on selecting Irish players based overseas in an attempt to protect and enhance the player pathway.

It has resulted in an increasingly competitive team who have realistic ambitions of succeeding at next year's Rugby World Cup in Japan.

At the outset of the tournament, the Irish Independent asked Schmidt how he feels his team has evolved over the 50 Tests he's been involved.

"I think in the first Six Nations we scored the most amount of tries. I think it was pretty fluid," he said.

"It was probably contrasted in the next Six Nations when we did not have the same midfield. It was a new midfield. It was a change in personnel.

"This Six Nations we have the youngest squad we have had and there is a degree of excitement in that. It does not mean we change the way we play. It means some players will play slightly differently.

"We have got guys, you look at skill sets, at personnel; and you look at some of the players we had four years ago and you look at the new breed of forward that comes out of teams and their comfort level on the ball that allows them to play slightly differently.

"Some players will have played more square and straight and now players will see a bit more space and that variety of play has always been there.

"I think you can go back to a whole lot of stats and how many passes are made and in the end, ours have not changed a whole lot since that first one where we were successful.

"The second tournament was successful as well but the context of games, in terms of the conditions you play in, can affect the way you end up playing. I think it is going to be interesting. I look at other teams as well and see the way they are trying to develop. The more it changes the more it stays the same.

"Is your lineout and scrum functioning well? Because your platform has to be strong.

"Is your accuracy and what you are doing good? Is the quality of your breakdown work good? The rules have not changed very much.

"We are trying to get the best out of the individuals we have.

"Our individuals are different this year. I do believe there is a core but there are a lot of guys who do not have that many caps. As I said, it is our youngest group, therefore, it will be interesting to see how they develop the way they play." Although he was dismissive of the numbers, they are instructive of a subtle change in Ireland's play.

It is clear that Schmidt's team want to hold on to the ball more. They had more possessions in last year's tournament than in any of the previous three or the 2015 World Cup and they kicked less of those possessions away.

In the 2014 Championship win, they had 1,634 possessions, kicking 8.38pc of them, whereas last year they had 1,938 - kicking 6.13pc.

Since before the World Cup, there has been more of a focus on Ireland's ground-game, but it is the arrival of the likes of Tadhg Furlong on the scene that has opened up the possibilities.

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Tadhg Furlong. Photo: Sportsfile

You just have to look at the All Blacks to know what highly-skilled tight-five forwards can give a team.

Comparing Mike Ross's contributions around the pitch to Furlong's makes for staggering reading. Ross gave so much to the cause and was the bedrock of the Irish scrum in a time of dire need, but his successor offers set-piece security and so much more.

Reliant

For a team that has been so reliant on Sexton to make things happen to be able to introduce an alternative distributor who allows the out-half greater width is a big boon. Defences facing the prospect of Furlong and Ryan having the option of carrying or passing behind the shield are forced to think.

It is an additional layer on top of the traditional Schmidt strengths of the pre-planned play and lightning-quick ruck ball. After the retirement of O'Driscoll, Ireland understandably lost some of their attacking prowess and in particular struggled in the opposition's '22.

When they went to Chicago last year and scored five tries against the All Blacks they didn't do anything starkly different, but they did keep the ball well and former winger Shane Horgan, who played under Schmidt at the end of his illustrious career, believes there is a growing belief to go with an impressive skill-set in the Irish pack.

"The autumn series was incredibly encouraging and the input from a few young players has made a difference and I think the conservatism has left," he said on the Second Captains podcast.

"We've seen that with Stockdale in his play, we've seen a revolution in what is going on with the props in Ireland. I'm really starting to believe that (there is an opportunity to win the World Cup) now. As an example of that is what we have at prop; not just our starting two but also the next two guys in are really quite evolved in the way they play.

"They're very good at the basics, they link the forwards and backs as well as anyone else I've seen do it.

"That style of play, if we see that in the Six Nations and that confidence and continuity continues then Ireland will be very comfortable in their play and we have a great chance to win it."

That attack has been allied to a defence that has a reputation for suffocating opponents with an aggressive line-speed, a combative aerial game, a solid set-piece and a ruthless approach to the breakdown that delivers quick, quality ball and disrupts the opposition.

Securing Andy Farrell gave Schmidt a highly respected coach to fall back on as well as a strong voice who could help fill the void left by Paul O'Connell.

"He's brought a different edge to us," O'Mahony said of the defence coach. "He's got a real policy that he drives and he's got a great way about the lads.

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Munster's Peter O'Mahony. Photo: Sportsfile

"Guys want to play well and defend for him and put in good performances. They listen to what he says, he has a great way of presenting in meetings. I think guys enjoy listening to him and obviously he has a huge amount of experience. He's bringing that to what we're about."

Of course, the game-plan is only as good as those who carry it out and Schmidt has been investing heavily in building depth.

He has given 49 players their international debuts, 11 of whom were developed outside the Irish system and either qualify through parentage or residency. Twelve of today's match-day 23 were handed their first cap by Schmidt

He has only ever used one player based overseas, Sexton, while the provinces must seek IRFU approval before going abroad for signings - with Nucifora risking the wrath of fans with his decisions to deny Munster the services of Australia's Stephen Moore and upsetting Ulster supporters when he wouldn't sign off on a contract extension for Ruan Pienaar.

The control Schmidt and the IRFU exert is the model on which other nations wish to build their system and allows him to build towards having viable options for each position playing regularly for the provinces.

"It was very controversial at the time, but I think you have to credit Nucifora and the IRFU for limiting the foreign player numbers," said former Ireland hooker Bernard Jackman, now the coach of the Dragons. "It has given us more depth. If Ruan Pienaar, I know Ulster fans won't be happy with this, but if he was still at Ulster you wouldn't have John Cooney, you'd only be picking from three scrum-halves. It's nice for Joe to know that every week he has four Irish-qualified players in play."

Deputies

In the space of a year, Ireland have gone from a position where Schmidt left Murray on the field in Cardiff for 12 minutes on one wing to having three able deputies for their world class scrum-half.

By 2019, Schmidt hopes to be in a similar spot across the board. Tighthead prop has long been an area of concern and remains the thinnest of all areas, but the hierarchy at Leinster and the IRFU identified Andrew Porter as having the size and skill-set to adapt to the position and already he has won three caps and is in Paris as a travelling reserve.

For all that there is a host of new faces, an experienced corps of trusted lieutenants remain. Some of them have been listening to the coach's voice for almost a decade, but he manages to keep it fresh.

Success helps, but so does Schmidt's relentless drive.

"One of his greatest strengths is making sure as a team we're always evolving and trying to improve, he demands that out of players as well," Rob Kearney said.

That evolution continues, but the work of the past four years under Schmidt's control makes Ireland a real force going into this Six Nations and beyond.

Irish Independent

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