Sport Rugby

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Trevor Hogan: Ireland's new heroes can put their names up in lights

Expect a generation of babies to be called after Joe Schmidt's men if they back up November's All Black display

The emergence of the likes of Tommy O’Donnell will bolster Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad, who will be looking for a level of intensity epitomised by Cian Healy’s performance against the All Blacks.
The emergence of the likes of Tommy O’Donnell will bolster Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad, who will be looking for a level of intensity epitomised by Cian Healy’s performance against the All Blacks.
Intense: Cian Healy’s performance against the All Blacks.

Trevor Hogan

Until recently in Ireland, naming children after saints was a popular phenomenon among parents. If a suitable saint were not available, then a pope or a particularly holy figure would do.

Being born in 1979, the year of the Papal visit to Ireland, I was one of thousands of infants lined up to be christened John-Paul.

Instead, amazingly, my parents gave my older brothers free rein in choosing my name. They were soccer-mad and almost couldn't believe their luck, as one Nottingham Forest-aligned brother got to name me in honour of their recent £1m signing Trevor Francis.

The soccer trend continued, as my younger brother was named after the great Liverpool 'keeper Ray Clemence. In a household obsessed with 'Shoot' magazine, 'Roy of the Rovers' and football encyclopedias, rugby players weren't getting a look in.

The Five Nations, however, would change that. There was something unique about the tournament that each spring hooked the sports fan. The aggression, the side-stepping wingers, the raw atmosphere at 1980s Lansdowne Road, the goal-kickers digging their heels into the turf to tee up the ball...

My older brothers were soon sucked in. The naming of the youngest after Ireland hooker Ciaran Fitzgerald signalled the shift towards rugby.

FOUNDATION

The Five Nations, as it was then, set the foundation for a huge growth in the game's popularity over the coming decades, to the point where the Championship is now an indispensable part of the Irish sporting calendar. While there is uncertainty about the future of European club rugby, it is unthinkable that spring would arrive without the Six Nations.

This year, there is a distinct optimism going into the tournament. Joe Schmidt has infused a clarity and sense of purpose that is increasingly evident in the attitude of the Irish players. Despite the devastating final 60 seconds against New Zealand, the performance that day had an intensity and accuracy that was possibly never before seen in a green jersey.

The over-riding challenge for Schmidt is to reproduce that on a consistent basis over the next number of weeks. In recent decades, the hallmark of Irish – both provincial and national sides – has been an ability to produce one-off massive performances. These usually come at a time when they are written off, dismissed as having little chance in the wake of a previous below-standard showing.

ADVERSITY

Irish players undoubtedly thrive on that sense of adversity, of being under-rated. There may be deeply ingrained historical and cultural reasons for this, related to a colonial past and our inherent affinity with being the underdog. This can be frustrating for fans and players, as it can lead to all too sporadic, if brilliant, performances against the odds.

However, rather than lament this tendency to respond in adversity, it could be best to embrace it, while combining it with an ever-present cold, clinical mindset. Bitterness and anger fuel aggression and it can be a useful weapon when available.

However, such motivation will not be at hand every week. The key, then, is to ally this with Schmidt's clinical, professional approach, relentlessly focusing on processes, detail and knowledge.

Schmidt's Leinster team embodied this attitude, building on the culture of the Michael Cheika years that revelled in proving everyone outside of the squad wrong. This approach, combined with the traditions and mental strengths of the other provinces, could provide the consistency Ireland are striving for.

Underpinning that consistency will be Ireland's work rate and attitude in defence. They will remember how narrow they were at times against Australia in the autumn and how their spacing in the wider channels saw their line broken on a number of occasions.

This, and an uncharacteristically passive line-speed were all transformed a week later against the All Blacks. The hunger to hunt down the attacker and shut down any half-break with what Les Kiss calls the 'hustle' from the inside defender formed the basis of that huge performance.

The desire to do that extra job has to become second nature and will be central to the Irish side putting a sustained run of form together in this Championship. Having trust in the defensive shape will be particularly crucial against the attacking threats of Wales and France.

In attack, the goal will be to reproduce that combination of detailed game knowledge and ruthless, aggressive tempo witnessed against the All Blacks. It was epitomised by the explosive and direct running of the Irish ball-carriers in that opening quarter, particularly in the New Zealand '22', that left Richie McCaw flat on his back after attempting a tackle on Cian Healy.

INSTINCT

The killer instinct in this zone of the field is no accident: it is the result of hours spent rehearsing roles and a clinical mindset. That mix of accuracy and emotional intensity can be elusive but it is a defining feature of a potent and routinely confident attack and a vital ingredient this spring.

The strength in depth of the squad will play a massive role in all of this. The signs are there, with the emergence of the likes of Martin Moore, Tommy O'Donnell, Jordi Murphy, James Cronin, Robbie Henshaw, Dave Kilcoyne and Kieran Marmion, that Ireland can sustain a high level of performance across a range of positions.

Joe Schmidt's lucidity in interviews means we are aware of the specific targets he has set for this tournament. A top-two finish is the unambiguous objective. Another, more vague benchmark of success could be the list of names on the birth register this spring.

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport