(Aaaanddd we’re back after a longer than expected hiatus! A round the world trip didn’t allow for much rugby watching or writing, though I did manage to sample some Peruvian beach rugby and a visit to a Crusaders-Chiefs game in Christchurch. As always, thanks for reading and if you’ve something to say, hit me up on Twitter or in the comments below.)
Nearly there now…
Here we are in the ‘no-man’s land’ between the phony war of warm-ups and the start of the RWC and it feels like nothing has really happened yet doesn’t it? I for one still feel we learned little about ourselves.
But then again, perhaps that’s the point? Avoid injury (just ask Wazza) and give nothing away.
Twickenham last weekend represented an unlikely second loss in two games for Schmidt’s Ireland. Ireland played ultra conservatively, even bizarrely box kicking from quick ball in the English 22 at one stage.
Without context, that’s definitely worrying.
But we must presume that it’s deflection tactics designed to not show our hand.
Beyond results, what’s more interesting to me is the little things we have been showing over the last four games.
One of the most interesting aspects of the warm-ups was always going to be watching the potential evolvement of Ireland’s playing style. This is the elephant in the room since the 6 Nations. Particularly since the Cardiff game, Schmidt has been critiqued for playing a negative/robotic/conservative/kicking game (delete as desired).
Common perception was that with a Summer full of training, Joe would have the backs hummin’, and we’d be playing an all singing and dancing offloading game with POC flinging out passes from first receiver.
Based upon what we’ve seen so far, this isn’t the case.
We made three offloads against England, while our most impressive performance, in the first game against Wales, was built as usual on quick rucks, structure and huge defensive effort (oh Andrew, how we’ll miss thee!)
Of course, the worry is our rigidity and our susceptibility against a monster pack of forwards. The White Orcs, led by a rather large Ben Morgan and a rather large Brad Barritt showed a blueprint on Saturday for how we can be beaten. Ironically, it looks like being better at our core strengths (simple, direct rugby based on winning the collisions and being smart with the ball) is the easiest way to beat us, because the Plan B for Ireland doesn’t seem to be there.
But is it really a worry?
I don’t believe so.
I’d wager our Plan A will be up to par by the time France rolls around.
I’ve recently seen Schmidt likened to Trappatoni in a pejorative way by some random internet troll.
But actually, the likeness isn’t as crazy as it seems. Bear with me here.
Trap was criticised for removing the individuality from the Irish footballers, focusing on structure rather than flair.
While Schmidt’s Ireland is undoubtedly more talented, one could say he has followed a similar rigid path, playing to what he sees our strengths to be.
Let’s be honest here for a second, even when Munster and Leinster have been winning all around them, Irish success has been based on defence, structure, and a biblical level of effort from all involved.
Sure, we have plenty of class, but then so does every other team, and size is lacking in our pack compared to SA, France and England in particular.
It’s clear now that since he’s come in, Joe has taken the opinion that our most likely means of success is based around simplicity, everyone playing their role and being as selfless as possible.
That’s partly why Zebo was sidelined for so long, why Gilroy hasn’t been given a shot and why ‘cart horses’ like Trimble, Kearney and Jones have been preferred. It’s why we hear about the importance of ‘always staying active’ so often from inside the camp.
It’s also why I believe Toner (who’s set piece and maul efforts are unparalleled) will start the France games despite Ryan & Hendo’s claims.
Simply, these guys fit into the system better.
The collective over the individual for a greater good.
We’re the communists of world rugby.
Don’t believe me?
Here’s a look at Darce’s excellent IT column today, I found this paragraph particularly enlightening for a guy who’s only recently left the squad.
There’s no magic formula indeed.
He also referenced the New England Patriots and their focus on individuality over the collective via the mantra ‘Do Your Job’.
We know that beating France will be a grind. They seem fitter and more structured than the 6 Nations, but also carry the enormous threat from deep of Huget and Nakaitaci, along with a huge pack based around the underrated Picamoles. Containment, hitting rucks like rabid dogs and maintaining a 90% set piece success rate will be the order of the day.
So when it comes down to it, our big World Cup 2015 gamble seems to be that Irish process beats French passion.
Innovation within reason
Of course, that certainly doesn’t mean we’ll be bored to the back teeth by Ireland.
Within reason, and with risk limited, we’ll definitely seem some novel set plays. Look back at the tries we’ve scored in the past two years, and count how many were ‘training ground moves’
Already in the first three games we’ve seen interesting teasers of moves to expect. Lineout and scrums are the main attacking opportunities for this Irish team.
Against Wales, our maul showed it’s still a weapon.
Against Scotland, a cleanly won lineout was reversed back into traffic. Unfortunately Bowe’s line was slightly off and the chance was lost.
Against England, we used Henshaw twice to great effect in the midfield, while our try was another brilliant example of simple effectiveness and everyone doing their job. Watch big Rory’s rucking effort and McGrath’s ‘diversion’ tactics.
The lineout will prove key in this World Cup, with many big nations already practising their own variations. Our lineout maul is a very important tool because it serves both as an attacking option, but also a deception tool (see Seanie’s try in Scotland for an example).
If the scrum maintains its steadiness, expect some more ‘reverse’ moves from there, akin to Kearney against England the last time we played in London.
Also watch out for Murray and Sexton using kicking to attack off quick ball, like these two little beauties.
The playbook has been developing now for two years, so to say we’re one dimensional is both unfair, but also wrong. The man on the street needs to embrace this, stop criticising the perceived ‘boring’ play and realise that this is the risk we need to take.
I’d go as far as to say that if you see us offloading and throwing the ball around against France, we’ll be in serious trouble.
According to Shane Horgan in a Guardian piece from March, ‘collective KISS’ is Joe’s mantra:
‘Take what you’re good at and become exceptional at it, make it a real weapon’
Our hope has to be that Ireland are ‘exceptional’ enough to overcome a French battering.
After that, anything could happen.
All hail Uncle Joe…