Friday 23 August 2019

Tony Ward: Half-back duo the real blessing in Schmidt's grand plan

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt has leaders of exceptional substance in every line of his team
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt has leaders of exceptional substance in every line of his team
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

I guess the key now is keeping a lid on it, but don't worry - they will. The 'it' is, of course, hype and public expectation as yet again Joe Schmidt and his management team have lifted the bar to unprecedented levels.

These are heady times indeed for Irish rugby. While we try not to get too carried away over this latest Six Nations success, the 10th win on the bounce of the Schmidt era, it's difficult because there is something very special evolving at the highest level of Irish rugby.

Whether it's enough to challenge for a World Cup later this year only time will tell, but we are putting ourselves in the best possible position as the global barometer comes into view.

But, two days on, England 2015 probably doesn't even register on Planet Schmidt. Facing Wales in Cardiff next up represents the be-all and end-all for this hugely committed and equally courageous group of Irish players. They don't talk the talk - whatever they think is kept very much in-house - but when the chips are down, they consistently walk the walk.

Thankfully, Sunday's game wasn't quite the brutish bore that preceded it at the same venue two weeks before. Yes, there was just a single try and true it came on the back of a bonus play with the penalty kick to Ireland having been already awarded. But that's called grabbing your opportunity with clinical precision and, more importantly, having the wherewithal to do it under the most intense pressure.

Meticulous

Much has been made of the meticulous preparation and attention to detail put in by the players in training at Carton House. And, while acknowledging the process that's being put into place via repetitive practice, there can be a tendency to lose sight of on-field decision-making, particularly when players are knackered in the white heat of battle.

But in all the bouquets coming the way of Schmidt and Les Kiss, the heads-up thinking of the players must not be downplayed. It takes pretty slick coaching to consistently have the appropriate game plan in place but it takes even slicker understanding and execution to see the best-laid plans carried through.

And before we have the 'anti-Matt O'Connor syndrome' seeping into the Irish team given that so many of the same Leinster players are involved, let me point out to those weaned on the spectacular winning rugby of the Felipe Contepomi, Brian O'Driscoll, Isa Nacewa, Shane Horgan, Gordon D'Arcy era, this was the work of a tactically astute coach developing a strategy around the players available and specifically the strengths and weaknesses of that group at that time.

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It's the common-sense approach and Joe Schmidt is what he is because of just that. He is no Merlin but is a practical operator applying practical principles to potentially complex problems at the highest level of the game.

And therein lies the new departure and real beauty for me. An Irish squad treating each successive game and opposition on its merits and tweaking the simplicity of the core plan ever so slightly along the way.

It can be termed 'horses for courses' preparation but if anyone out there can tell me a better way of going about your rugby business, I look forward to hearing it.

And lest the impression is given of a conductor taking all the praise on the Last Night of the Proms, it must be reiterated that in every line of his team Schmidt is blessed with leaders of exceptional substance and yet again on Sunday to a man they counted.

From Rory Best, through Paul O'Connell to Peter O'Mahony in the forward unit, these are men of exceptional strength of character over and above playing ability alone. Bear in mind that O'Mahony had to soldier without Jamie Heaslip and Sean O'Brien from the starting back-row against the French yet the transition for Tommy O'Donnell and Jordi Murphy was almost seamless with O'Mahony absolutely exceptional in every way.

Add in Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton and Rob Kearney at the back and Schmidt is spoilt for choice for leaders to inherit that captain's armband when O'Connell eventually does decide to call it a day.

And even though he is a garsún by comparison, Robbie Henshaw is assuming a midfield presence that makes it hard to believe this is his first time round the block at this level. If Jonathan Joseph is already being touted as a possible player of the tournament just a few games in, then where does stand Henshaw on that flimsy rationale?

It's pointing to the blindingly obvious, but I felt Murray and Sexton could prove the difference against the English and they did.

Individually, they are exceptionally strong characters with equally strong mindsets and combined it makes for an exceptional pair of half-back commanders steering our course.

Some might not like me saying this given the nature of the game and its interdependency but for me the difference between winning and losing the tight games comes down specifically to the Irish halves and the clear quality of their intent and execution.

Either would have been an equally worthy recipient of Sunday's official Man of the Match award.

What I enjoyed more than anything about Sunday's win, and I have no doubt the Irish head coach shares my view, was the manner in which we controlled the game. Even in times of crisis we had the right players in the right positions making the right calls at pretty much all the right times. That doesn't happen by chance.

And ,you know the real beauty of it is, without losing the run of ourselves, that, while the golden generation may be dead, long live the golden generation...

Concern as Connacht disband schools squad

Last Tuesday a meeting was held in Galway between the schools representatives and new Connacht domestic rugby manager Eric Elwood.

Those involved in running schools rugby were informed that, from next season, the CBIRFU will not be competing in the schools interprovincial series.

Inteead, they will be fielding one squad under the banner U-18s as part of the youths tournament.

Confirmation from the Connacht Branch followed, informing those on the ground voicing concerns which at least warrant debate, that "the decision the Branch have made at this time is to play under the banner of Connacht U-18 and play in the youths competition. An open mind will be kept to regularly review this situation"

While clearly the bottom-line objective is to do what is best for Connacht rugby going forward, it is the unnecessary haste surrounding this decision, without proper debate or notification, that rankles with those currently working on nursing the next generation of Robbie Henshaws through.

Timing is everything, we know, but that concern is heartfelt.

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