Ireland finished third in the Six Nations Championship. I’m not exactly sure what a team imploding looks like, but I’m pretty sure losing two games from five and falling to third in the world rankings isn’t implosion. Ireland’s losses have been sensationalised by both the media and the fans. “Formula rugby”, “Mindless rugby” and “Straightjacket” are just some of the terms being used to describe Ireland’s game plan. Joe Schmidt, of course, has taken the brunt of the criticism, which he surprisingly seemed to avoid during Ireland’s eighteen-game winning streak. The reality is that most journalists are becoming like the wind; changing direction depending on the conditions. Did Joe Schmidt and forty Irish players lose the ability to understand rugby overnight?
Yes, the game plan Schmidt generally opts for is somewhat restrictive. Yes, the gameplan is labour intensive. Yes, it is sometimes repetitive to watch. But it works. To those who reckon England and Wales have Ireland’s gameplan totally figured out I ask you; did the nineteen teams Ireland beat on the bounce before the Six Nations just all neglect to do their homework on Ireland? It seems that with all the resources available to modern professional rugby teams that they would do at least some research on Ireland.
Rugby is a game of fundamentals. Every gameplan is built on a fundamental strategy and any strike-plays or special moves are simply an add-on. It’s not as if England’s gameplan caught Ireland by surprise in the first game of the Six Nations; they just simply imposed their gameplan on Ireland very well. Just by looking at the team sheet for the first game it was obvious England would use Farrell to kick the ball to gain some territory, if he found touch England would try to contest the line-out, and failing that use their hammer defence to force an error from Ireland. If Farrell failed to make touch they dropped Vunipola into the backfield; ready to run the ball back, breaking the initial few tackles to create go forward ball. Then through the use of their heavy, ultra-physical pack space was created for Tuilagi and co. in the backs by forcing the Irish defence to soak up the physical threat of the English pack with multiple tacklers. Super simple stuff. England didn’t re-invent the wheel. In fact, they didn’t even change the tyres. All England did is play as they have for most of the professional era, they just played well, imposing their gameplan on Ireland. They didn’t somehow change their gameplan against Scotland or Wales. Scotland and Wales just showed patience and struck when the chance arose to impose their gameplan on England.
Wales are perhaps the ultimate example. Their gameplan can’t really be figured out per se. It’s not as if they’re hiding anything. They’ve received criticism for it. However, I think it’s a rather bold rugby statement. Gatland seems to set out his stall in plain sight. Wales do the basics incredibly well, with only a few specialised strike plays used per match. They seem to invite the team to try and analyse them, to spot their weaknesses knowing that is a near impossible task when the game is played so simply and at such a high tempo. The point is, excepting perhaps Eddie O’Sullivan and a few others every rugby coach bases their gameplan on the basics of the game, and consistently sticks to this. It’s not about surprising the opposition with your gameplan, it’s about bringing a level of physicality, skill and fitness to the game that the opposition simply cannot live with. To do this you need your best players to be fit and in form. Ireland struggled with both of these elements during the Six Nations. But then again, it doesn’t provide a very hard-hitting headline; does it? “Ireland unfortunate with injuries and the form of a few key players”. Not exactly front page stuff; reality is often not as dramatic as we would like it to be. Doom and gloom sells.
There is still a lot of reasons to be positive heading into the World Cup later this year, bearing in mind the fact that neither Schmidt, nor his players promised a World Cup Trophy. All four of the Irish Provinces are sitting in a position to make the play-offs of the Pro14, with Leinster and Munster both having Champions Cup Semi-Finals to look forward to. Furthermore, Conor Murray seems to be finding some sort of return to form with Munster. All of the players receiving international exposure during the Six Nations seem to have benefitted; among them the 26-year-old Jack Conan who has been consistently excellent in the past eighteen months.
Before the Six Nations I wrote an article entitled “Does The IRFU View The Grand Slam As More Important Than The World Cup?”, where I put the question whether it may be wiser to blood new talent in the Six Nations; with an eye to the World Cup, as opposed to having a sole focus of winning the Championship at the expense of our squad depth for the World Cup. Whether through injury or belief in developing squad depth Schmidt played 32 different players throughout the Championship. This stat alone is huge for Ireland’s World Cup hopes.
Winning a World Cup is dependent on a myriad of variables. Yes, we had what some are calling a “wobble” during this year’s Six Nations. However, this year’s Tournament has not changed my view of things. Before the Six Nations I wrote “For once we have what seems to be the right group of players, under the right coach, with the right attitude to go and win the World Cup.” My opinion still remains the same.
By Matthew Dillon – Sports Co-Editor