Sport Rugby

Sunday 17 December 2017

'There was a couple of fairly major system errors'

Ireland's coach wants time to teach his players to trust themselves and each other in tight situations

Ryan Crotty of the All Blacks scores the match winning try during the match between Ireland and the All Blacks
Ryan Crotty of the All Blacks scores the match winning try during the match between Ireland and the All Blacks
New Zealand players celebrate with Aaron Cruden, 10, after he converted a late try.
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

A couple of weeks ago on a playing field not too far from here, a quick post-match debrief was taking place.

The favourites had won with a decent margin to spare, but the underdogs were going home feeling good about themselves having given it everything. Pre-match you could measure easily the imbalance in desire between the teams. The coach of the favourites was warning his team that if they didn't get their minds right they'd get their backsides bitten. His opposite number was reading the same signs and telling his players to sharpen their teeth.

The debrief in the losers' camp was upbeat despite the result. Thirty metres away, the winners were reflecting on a tepid performance. Two weeks earlier they had produced rugby that was accurate, intense and unrelenting in seeing off a highly-rated touring team. "We can't be like that every week," one of the players said, by way of explanation. "It's just not possible."

His colleagues agreed. They also agreed, however, that it should be possible to have a baseline below which they wouldn't drop, and if it looked like they were verging on slipping into the red then they would get on to each other to pull it back up. The oldest in that group was 14.

It's odd given the comments from a variety of sources over the past week that if a bunch of teenagers can grasp the basics of drawing from the emotional well why so many adults can't do the same.

The scale of Ireland's withdrawal from that source, and its immediate lodgement in their performance against New Zealand last Sunday, was Troikaland stuff. Since then pretty much everywhere Joe Schmidt has turned there have been people he never met before telling him what a shame it was the investment didn't pay off. Has it eased the pain for him?

"No, not really. I think one of the things is we want it to be performance-based and we want to be able to put a performance together and I felt there was a progression from that perspective, but in the end you're judged by the scoreboard. That's the global judgment; that's the public judgment, and we didn't succeed there."

Joe Schmidt's job is to join the dots. He has a theory on most things rugby-related. On this issue it's that every game has a series of hinges. If at the right time you happen across a well-oiled one then a door opens and you barrel through it and plunder some points. That incites positive reaction from the crowd. The players then go up another notch, looking for that endorphin rush that washes down from the stands.

He reckons that against Australia they were opening the right doors but the Wallabies then jammed them successfully – and illegally – and the day took a different course. Just as it might have done against the All Blacks last Sunday if those early waves of attack had washed up on an empty beach instead of one with startled Kiwis who were swept out to sea.

In fairness, the second part is more convincing than the first, for whatever about Ireland's attack against the Wallabies, their defence was so passive as to be hospitable. It seems inescapable that if we hadn't been emptied by Australia we couldn't have filled our boots against New Zealand. As for the sheer, overwhelming emotion that drove the attacks against the Kiwis in the first place last Sunday?

"I think to replicate that is difficult at the same heightened intensity but we've got to be able to replicate the same accuracy," Schmidt says. "And then I think that heightens the excitement anyway, and you can still build the intensity even if it doesn't exist immediately from kick-off."

If he had gone down the 'we need to summon up this tsunami every week' route then you would have turned off the recorder and gone home.

There are a few hurdles in the way however on that road to accuracy. Like access to players, which means keeping them in the Irish system. It didn't take long for the Johnny Sexton saga to take a costly twist, when he arrived for duty needing a new clock to record all the extra miles he had run up since going to France a few months ago. We had the bizarre situation where a player was being rested in the international window (the game versus Samoa) because of his non-stop activity in the domestic one.

The next challenge is exposing as many players as is practicable to Test rugby to build some depth for when other Johnnys come marching home, with a limp.

"We have to be a little bit long-term focused, in as much as we're short-term driven, because without that long-term focus I just feel we can be vulnerable at any point," Schmidt says. "We have a sprinkling of world-class players. We have some very good players who may develop into world-class players, and we need to try and grow that group as much as we can. There was an article about how many of that (NZ) 2011 under 20 team – how many of them were actually in the All Black squad? For us we need to get that same depth. I don't know if we have to come through that process, we've just got to work really hard on making them good enough."

It would help if the performance director's position in the IRFU had already been filled, for you need someone driving that to tie all the loose ends together. Former Australian high performance director David Nucifora has been offered the job but whether or not he is taking it is still unconfirmed. The way Schmidt talks it could be the end of his first season in the job before that is put to bed. A season lost, and 12 months closer to the World Cup.

For the next step on that journey, the Six Nations in February, all concerned will refer for direction back to last Sunday. Encouragingly, Schmidt is good on delivering when people are standing with their hands out.

In Clermont, he encountered near basket cases, so fraught was that club's relationship with Top 14 finals. His third and last season there as assistant coach coincided with their 11th final – and first win.

When he arrived in Leinster there was a different sort of expectation. The scale of his delivery – six finals and four trophies in three seasons – left everyone in that organisation feeling blessed he had walked in the door. It was early enough in that relationship that they knew he would be walking out and turning right for Lansdowne Road.

Statistically, his first Test drive has ended in the ditch, with one win from three when two was the target. He was 20 seconds away from hitting the bullseye though. Then that 20 seconds turned into a 100-second journey back and across Lansdowne Road, through 13 pairs of All Black hands, before ending in despair.

If all around the ground people were simultaneously cursing Nigel Owens when he penalised Jack McGrath, and offering up prayers for salvation, what was Schmidt doing? "It's one of those times where to be honest you say nothing on the mic," he says. "You've got nothing to say because whatever will be will be. Like, you can send a message on and no one gets it. All you do is you watch and hope like any other supporter. You've just probably invested more time and effort in what does happen if it's not positive. But did I feel that we could have defended it? Yeah.

"I don't think they did anything particularly special. Their pass quality was spot on, their handling was very, very good but we knew all those elements of their game prior to them arriving in Dublin. So for me those last 100 seconds they were just agonisingly slow and even when Ryan Crotty did get over, we actually could have numbered up there and we didn't manage to. And possibly got him into touch but we didn't manage to. I think (there was) seven system errors in that 100 seconds, you know. I don't think there were too many missed tackles but some of those system errors were very minor and you wouldn't notice them, but there was a couple of fairly major system errors.

"Vince Lombardi said fatigue makes cowards of us all and I think that is a really harsh way of saying it. I don't think anyone demonstrated any cowardice. I think there was a hell of a lot of courageous stuff that happened on Sunday but what it does do is it limits our vision, it limits our processing. There's plenty of experiments that have been done where people are slower to react, reaction times drop off, decision-making gets poorer with fatigue, and that's part of what happened."

Can you really warp the mind into a shape that recognises what needs to be done instead of how tired you are about doing it?

"Yeah. I think you can. Again, the other part of it I don't think was fatigue, I think it was fear. There was a self-constriction of what was needed in that moment because there was a fear of: 'Here's the best team in the world that regularly make the most of any opportunity. We're struggling here. Jeez, I'll see if I can close this down now and solve the problem or I won't quite trust that guy inside me, I think I have to come a bit closer. Or I know they have made a wide pass, now I'm chasing my tail'. Those sort of elements, you can coach those. You can coach the clarity and trust. The one thing I'd say is that it takes time.

"It's been a massive learning experience for me, these four weeks. And my biggest frustration after Sunday is I don't have a game on Saturday to distract me because I'm kind of reliving those last 100 seconds and at the same time they're gone now. I felt there were elements of progress in the four weeks. Where do we pick that up from now I'm not sure. It's like anything, it's not a linear gradient progress, it's fraught with dips and spasms and one of the things that is really difficult to get as close to linear progress as possible is continuity of feedback and performance, and feedback in performance.

"We now have a window where we do a day and half just prior to Christmas, and then we have Wolfhounds week and then we play Scotland the following week. My challenge is to try to, with Plum (John Plumtree) and Les (Kiss), do the best we can to try to get, I suppose, continue from where we've left off. I'm not sure how you do that. This whole season is going to be a learning experience, particularly myself and Plum who have always been involved with teams for full seasons and had a continuity of, I suppose, interaction with players."

As for his own debrief a week ago, in a room full of drained bodies and broken hearts, it was short.

"Yeah, you say a couple of encouraging things and you leave them," he says. "But does it get any easier to live with? No. Probably not."

Sunday Independent

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