Wolfhounds' ferocity gives insight into Schmidt's plans
February, 2008: McDiarmid Park, Perth, Scotland – home of St Johnstone Football Club. Not exactly a renowned rugby fortress. That night six years ago, when Ireland 'A' took on Scotland 'A', it seemed like a graveyard.
The game was undoubtedly my most painful experience in rugby. We lost 67-7. Writing down those numbers, even now, is still agonising.
There is a burning shame and embarrassment looking back at those figures, at the gap between us and them. Ten tries. Ten times we gathered under our posts to watch their kicker try to punish us further.
Looking at our side, the extent of the loss still seems hard to explain. We had a strong line-up, with experience and real quality throughout from Isaac Boss, Ian Dowling, Gavin Duffy to Stephen Ferris, Niall Ronan and Frankie Sheahan. Keith Earls and Donnacha Ryan were on the bench.
Pain lingers longer than joy. A lot longer. Whenever I hear of a Scottish national side preparing for a game against Ireland, I get a stinging reminder. Images of a dark, wet night in central Scotland flood back. If I close my eyes, I see the centre Graeme Morrison, running through tacklers, swatting them away as if we were U-18s. No 8 Johnnie Beattie carrying hard, repeatedly and effortlessly.
Anyone who has conceded 60 points in a rugby match might be familiar with the growing feeling of helplessness as the scoreboard mounts. There is always resilience, yet the dreaded silence inevitably seeps in. There are few things worse than the quietness that descends on a team, behind the posts. The realisation when there is nothing left to say. The quick fixes have run out – there are no solutions.
Then there is the added torment from knowing that this happened when wearing a green jersey. Representing everyone on the island. Would it have hurt less if it happened playing for our clubs or provinces? I think so.
That night I learned to never underestimate a Scottish national side. Yet, there is a sense, among the public at least, that a match against Scotland is a fixture that we will likely win. An assumption, too, that this year, aside from the six-day turnaround, the schedule has been kind to Ireland, giving a nice lead-in to the 'real' test against Wales. This is undoubtedly not a mindset that will penetrate those training in Carton House or any player who has experience of playing against Scotland.
Even without Tim Visser, the return of Stuart Hogg to their line-up at full-back, to combine with Maitland and Lamont, creates a potent counter-attacking threat.
They will punish any poor Irish kick-chase or uneven defensive spacing of the like Ireland showed against Samoa and Australia in the autumn. Greig Laidlaw at No 9 will expose any hesitation from the second Irish defender at the breakdown, while Kelly Brown and Jim Hamilton epitomise the Scottish resilience and hardness in contesting the ruck and the line-out ball, particularly to the front.
Even still, there is huge cause for optimism this week leading into the championship.
Ireland's performance against the All Blacks gave us an insight into the direct, aggressive and high-tempo game that's part of the Schmidt strategy. This game plan was again clearly on view last weekend in the Wolfhounds' victory over England at Kingsholm.
In past years, there may have been a disconnect between what the Irish 'A' team and the senior side were looking to achieve. Selection for the 'A' side would usually mean you were out of contention for the senior team. The squad was often a place where a camaraderie developed from a shared sense of being cast aside, of being out of contention.
But this year seemed different. The body language and attitude of the Wolfhounds, epitomised by the tireless captain Rhys Ruddock, and also Ian Madigan's quick-tap penalty that led to his try, was that they were a part of the Six Nations.
With the deliberate emphasis that Joe Schmidt has put on the strength in depth, as well as the importance of the entire squad knowing their roles, those taking the field last weekend knew they had a genuine chance of being involved against Scotland.
As a result, the match provided a window into what they have been working on in camp over the last couple of weeks and showed areas that have been given emphasis with the Scottish game in mind.
The most obvious aspect of this was attitude of the Irish players to the breakdown. This was clear in the work rate and urgency to get to the ruck first and either get the poach or barge right through the middle. Robin Copeland got a couple of great steals here and with his aggression and athleticism, has really catapulted himself into contention over the next few weeks.
The line speed in defence was particularly noticeable, with some really dominant tackles from Iain Henderson and Ruddock. The shape and trust in the defensive spacing was also extremely evident in the closing stages. A huge aggression, both in defending the maul and in fighting for every yard, reflects the organisation and cohesion of John Plumtree and Anthony Foley.
These aspects will be critical to the senior side's approach this weekend. And, personally, seeing an Irish win over the Scottish will go a little way to easing the torment of McDiarmid Park in 2008.
O'DRISCOLL'S BOOK WILL STILL HAVE THE WRITE STUFF
The news this week that Paul Kimmage is not completing the work of ghost writing Brian O'Driscoll's autobiography is a massive disappointment, not just to sports fans, but to readers in general.
The somewhat formulaic press release issued by Penguin Ireland, where it "regretfully accepts the resignation of Paul Kimmage", underplays what must've been a tumultuous few days for all parties involved.
The level of professionalism and scrutiny that Kimmage brings to bear in his writing is probably unparalleled in sports journalism.
On his way to meeting Jonathan Sexton in Paris recently, he described the general interview process with players as being "like combat" as he attempted to get inside the heads of players. As such, Kimmage is perfectly placed for ghost writing, to faithfully reproduce a player's innermost thoughts.
He seemed relentless in this pursuit and in this regard Kimmage would have a lot of parallels with Joe Schmidt. Both are perfectionists with massive attention to detail.
We may never know the full reason why O'Driscoll (left) and the journalist have gone their separate ways, but the potential of this autobiography is not lost.
Undoubtedly Kimmage would have unearthed a voice we're not familiar with, away from the confines of the rugby sphere. With good reason, it was the most eagerly anticipated autobiography in a genre that doesn't always provide grounds for originality.
However, the impetus for this book has come from O'Driscoll and he will still be eager to ensure the finished article is a true and insightful reflection of himself. Alan English, a great and experienced writer, who is taking the helm, will want to do that story justice.