Sport Six Nations

Thursday 18 January 2018

Trying times for Irish as another test looms

Joe Schmidt's Ireland are joint lowest try-scorers in this Six Nations, creating the fewest clean breaks in the tournament to date. Vincent Hogan examines what has changed for a team that scored 16 touchdowns en route to last year's Championship crown

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

For Joe Schmidt, this week will have been a fingernails-on-the-blackboard ordeal. His team is too narrow, too predictable, we say. Four tries in four games, two from lineout mauls, one a referee's sanction. Now that the Grand Slam has been forsaken, gloom seems to be spreading like an oil-slick.

Even if, somehow, the Championship is retained today, the grumble is it will be bleached of something precious. As a former winger, the charges against him must seem galling. No depth to the attack. No imagination. No smart game-management.

Schmidt's teams have always been defined by intelligence in possession but, against Wales, Ireland resembled bulls charging against a red gable wall.

When he first came here, what most struck Leinster's players was Schmidt's forensic approach to untangling an opposition defence. He applied his theories by running individual plays with relentless repetition on the training ground. Until and unless execution was perfect - Schmidt would not move on.

The players grew to love this stubbornness because, in time, it gave them certainty. When the coach sold them a new play, he did it with every ounce of his being.

Yet, in Wales, Ireland's territorial dominance was corrupted by all of the viruses that Schmidt coaches so actively against. Imprecision, impatience, 'white-line fever', panic.

It means that four games into this Six Nations, the defending champions have had the fewest clean breaks of all the contestants (two fewer than Italy even) and scored the fewest tries (equal with France on four).

With three victories out of four, it's not quite a return to the grim arithmetic of the nineties (when Ireland lost all four Five Nations games in '92, winger Simon Geoghegan went the entire Championship without receiving an attacking pass).

One-dimensional

Yet, there is a sense that tactically the team has, perhaps, become one-dimensional. That, having scored 16 tries en route to the title last spring, they have been re-shod from a thoroughbred into a dray horse.

Schmidt was, palpably, offended by some of the post-match questioning last Saturday, detecting in it a lack of appreciation for this being Ireland's first Test defeat in 11.

On his watch, we have beaten all of the heavyweights of world rugby now, bar New Zealand. Johnny Sexton describes him as "the best coach I've known", while Brian O'Driscoll says that he has never encountered one with a "smarter rugby brain".

On Thursday, Schmidt addressed the issue of Ireland's diminishing try returns.

"One of the frustrations from last week is that we did create, in our reckoning, three really clear try-scoring opportunities that we didn't convert," he said.

"Last year, we converted a lot of our try-scoring opportunities. They are very fine margins.

"If your ruck gets slowed down a little bit, someone gets around the corner. I don't know if you saw the one where Tommy Bowe was so close to scoring, I think Rory Best is going to score for sure and he gets pushed over by a defender coming around to get in the position.

"They are the really fine margins. If Conor (Murray) can scoop that up to Rory, there is no one in front of him. We're trying to get on the right side of those margins.

"The game is very fickle. One week you might score three tries and the next week you might not get any and you might have played better.

"We were incredibly frustrated and disappointed with those first 15-20 minutes against Wales. But, if you take those out, we dominate the game,

"If you put it alongside some of the performances we've had, there were parts of that game where we played some of our best rugby in the Championship and parts where we played some of our worst.

"Unfortunately, the period that was our worst gave them a 12-point head start."

Murrayfield presents a potentially defining point of intersection for the Schmidt regime now.

The machine-like aura that Ireland had been acquiring has, suddenly, come undone. Defeat changes things. Not just outside interpretations of a team's dynamic, but much that happens within the bubble itself.

For Ireland, the enemy today isn't Scotland. It's the threat of losing nerve.

Denis Hickie believes there has been an over-reaction to Cardiff, suspecting the broad fixation with this scarcity of Irish tries to be missing a bigger point. "There's obviously disappointment," he says. "But I think this notion that all of a sudden there are these systematic problems with the Irish attack is a little bit over-played.

"When you look at a team that has virtually 75pc possession and 75pc territory, you know they're very close to where they need to be. In Cardiff, Ireland got into field positions through putting the ball through hands and taking the opposition through phases.

"A lot has been made of the extraordinary defensive effort of Wales, but I would say it was an extraordinary ball-retention effort from Ireland. Yes, they will look at whether there were opportunities to shift the point of attack from around the ruck area and the ten, 12 channels to maybe go wider on occasions.

"I think what it's really about is the options they are taking."

Nobody doubts that this week's video sessions will have been pitiless. Schmidt isn't known to swear too often or even raise his voice at team meetings, but he can be eye-wateringly blunt if that's what he feels is required.

Famously, he identified "seven systems errors" behind that late, cruel concession of a try to New Zealand in the November international of 2013.

So he will not have been of a mind to massage any bruised egos this week.

Reputation gets little traction at his team meetings, O'Driscoll observing in his autobiography, 'The Test', that in Schmidt's final year as Leinster coach, he felt less confident of his place in the Leinster team than he did with Ireland.

As for the dearth of Irish tries in this Six Nations, the coach might reasonably suggest that the tournament itself has experienced a pretty radical personality change from last season.

A total of 61 tries were scored in the 2014 Championship, averaging out at just over four per game. This year's total is just 34 to date. Not quite back to 2013 standards, when the average was a miserly 2.5 (the lowest in the tournament's history), but close enough to identify last season as some kind of high-scoring aberration.

That said, the almost ecumenical calm Schmidt brings to media gatherings seemed to tremble a bit in the Millennium Stadium last Saturday. For, as well as Wales defended, the defeat still carried a degree of self-harm.

In his book, O'Driscoll offered an intriguing snapshot of what the Irish players most probably encountered this week.

"He can be Mr Nice Guy, but he can be ruthlessly honest when he needs to be," he wrote. "He rarely shouts, but his words can be lethal. He can cut you down in an instant and the pitch of his voice doesn't need to rise or fall.

"He expects high standards, all the time, complete understanding of the game-plan and what it means for every player, whether you're on the ball or 20 metres away.

"New ideas, new plays, subtleties that demand absolute attention to detail.

"'What's your role in this?'

"'What exactly are you doing and why are you doing it?'

"He makes little tweaks in a backline play and all of a sudden an opposition defence opens up in front of you. And you look over at him and he's smiling."

Still, Schmidt's dependence upon specific individuals is obvious and natural and, accordingly, ever so slightly unsettling. Whereas Philippe Saint-Andre has used 15 different combinations at half-back alone for France, Schmidt sides with a sense of permanency. Even at less than 100pc, Sexton plays because, well, without him we are so much poorer.

Compounded

And Paul O'Connell's magnificence in Cardiff simply compounded looming apprehension for when the Limerick man follows O'Driscoll into retirement. Schmidt needs a fully-fit Sexton and O'Connell at the World Cup more desperately that he can ever publicly acknowledge.

Fingers pointed this week at a midfield which, in O'Driscoll's absence, hasn't been breaking too many gain-lines. The combination of Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne lacks little in beef, but are there issues with subtlety?

Hickie believes it important that judgments drawn from Cardiff now are done in a proper context.

"When you look at the midfield partnership, it's a relationship that's still learning and developing in the international arena," he says. "This was a very tight game that Ireland had to chase. They put themselves in a very difficult position with the concession of penalties. And it was a game in a very, very challenging environment.

"But I still think the team is going in the right direction. We lost an incredible game by the narrowest of margins. Ireland are doing so much right now.

"The statistic they'll be most disappointed with is that, when they had the opposition under huge pressure, they perhaps didn't take the right options.

"But some people are putting two and two together now and coming up with five. I don't think there needs to be any huge change of emphasis for Murrayfield, apart from not conceding penalties.

"Remember, we've won ten of our last 11. It's not as if we're back to square one."

So to Edinburgh then in search of another Championship with, perhaps, the bonus signature of a few tries. No-one doubts Schmidt's desire, whatever the wider implications, to close this campaign with a win against his old friend, Vern Cotter.

Leinster players believed he became more animated in the days leading up to big European games against Clermont, for whom he worked with Cotter for two years. Whether or not today's aesthetics will concern him, we can be sure that the broad acoustic of the week has needled Schmidt.

But play to a fickle audience and, chances are, they will disappoint you.

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