Monday 23 October 2017

Trevor Hogan: Five ways Joe Schmidt can make Ireland lose that sinking feeling

Plugging gaps in defence crucial to fuelling self-belief in Schmidt's side

Joe Schmidt will have his coaching expertise tested to the full on Sunday
Joe Schmidt will have his coaching expertise tested to the full on Sunday

If ever there has been a week that the Irish management would look to prioritise defence, this is it. After conceding uncharacteristically soft tries and line breaks to both Samoa and Australia, Ireland now face New Zealand, the side that describe themselves – fairly accurately – as "the most dominant team in history". Defence will justifiably dominate ahead of Sunday's final tie of the Autumn series.

Not only does such a focus help simplify the huge challenge that lies ahead, but it will also help channel the necessary intensity and aggression that was lacking last weekend. Seeing how England's ferocious defensive work rate, particularly from Courtney Lawes and Dylan Hartley, gave them a foothold against the All Blacks, even after a bad start, merely confirms the importance of this area.

That is not to say Ireland's attacking strategy won't be a vital element. The tempo and speed with which Ireland carry against the All Blacks will be crucial, but it is the energy and aggression the Irish team put into the tackle this weekend that will provide the platform for everything else.

For this to happen, there are a number of key areas that Les Kiss and Joe Schmidt will be addressing.

1 SPACING

Players must trust each other to keep the spacing right in the defensive line.

One aspect that has caused Ireland serious trouble in the past two weeks has been the amount of space separating defenders. As a rule, the gap will vary, depending on the attacking threat, but it should never become too narrow.

Ireland's spacing has been generally very good around the ruck area, especially between the first defender – the pillar – and the first receiver. But it is outside the 10, especially in open play against Australia, where there have been problems.

Here players, sensing a threat in the middle of the field, tended to come closer together in order to take on the expected collision. This meant that when, for example, Stephen Moore pulled a long 'screen' pass, or James Horwill got the off-load back out of the contact, Irish defenders were immediately under a lot more pressure to cover the extra ground and get across into the wider channels.

Off loose kicks, Australia looked to go into this wide pattern and New Zealand will do the same. Munster fans will be very familiar with this structure from Rob Penney. The All Blacks – particularly Kieran Read – are clinical in holding their width and ruthless at exploiting any holes in these areas.

It will be crucial that team-mates back each other and don't over-commit when someone like Brodie Retallick carries the ball in the middle of the field.

If Ireland can get their spacing right, then when the All Blacks play with width we will be in a better position to cover and plug holes wherever they arise, just as England did last week.

2 TALK

A lot of the issues around spacing can be solved very quickly simply by communicating and identifying the threats.

One thing that you notice from playing with or against New Zealanders or Australians is how much they talk on the pitch. They rarely shut up. While in attack too much talk can become an obstacle – in defence it absolutely vital.

Even if it's simple talk – "I've got X" or even better, "Hit him" – it breeds confidence and energy. The more Irish voices we hear coming through on the referee's mic this weekend, the more we'll be in the game.

3 LINE SPEED

Possibly the single most vital aspect of defence for this weekend is line speed. It is hard to overstate the difference it makes to an attack if defenders sprint off the line and shut down their space.

Straight away it puts the attackers under huge pressure and cuts down their options, forcing them to look at kicking options. A really fast line speed is the best way to stop New Zealand getting into the wide areas and without Dan Carter, their cross or chip kicks will not be as accurate.

It is crucial, however, that the line comes up together, as one slight gap will be exposed. If someone decides to go solo they have to be guaranteed they are cutting down the man and the ball. If not, the All Blacks will definitely make a line break, and from there it is too late.

You cannot rely on scramble defence against New Zealand as they play with such tempo after a burst, and hold such good width, that they will have space somewhere after the next breakdown.

4 DOMINANT TACKLES

Against Australia, there were probably too many 'soak' tackles, where Irish defenders absorbed the contact in their stomach area, giving the attacker the advantage in contact straight away.

There were a few big hits, notably from Cian Healy and Paul O'Connell on Israel Folau. This weekend, though, each of Ireland's 15 will probably need to make one of the biggest hits of their lives.

5 EMOTION/INTENSITY

It is really important to get the balance right between accuracy in detail and emotional intensity. This aggressive mindset is the ingredient that underpins not just all of the above defensive aspects, but every element in rugby. Very little will happen without that hallmark of Irish sides. No one seriously doubts this will be there on Sunday.

More than any other, this fixture is about belief. If Ireland defend with this organised intensity from the outset, then the faith will spread. This weekend, it can happen.

Rugby-GAA links about more than money

As the Irish bid to host the Rugby World Cup gathers momentum, one cannot underestimate the role of the GAA in the whole process.

The GAA's decision last March to support the bid was a massive gesture and possibly underplayed within wider sporting circles. In making their stadiums available, the organisation is essentially making the project viable.

It rivals their decision in initially opening up Croke Park during the redevelopment of Lansdowne Road, in terms of how it changes the Irish sporting landscape.

At the grassroots level, more then ever, the GAA face intense competition with the IRFU for players. In rural areas in particular, rugby is growing, and players who would have traditionally taken up Gaelic football are now considering the oval ball. It cannot have been easy for the GAA to allow use of their grounds in view of the threat rugby arguably poses to future levels of participation.

The move symbolises how sport can rise above narrow self-interest. It's a move reciprocated recently, by Ulster rugby who are facilitating a Gaelic football match at Ravenhill to help fundraise for Antrim footballer Anto Finnegan, diagnosed with motor neurone disease.

This can be the template, for what sport and this potential tournament could be about. It cannot simply be down to the €800m it might "bring to the economy."

It has to rise beyond money and tourist head-counts. An Irish Rugby World Cup can bring communities, towns and people across our 32 counties closer together in a way that has never happened before.

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport