tough edge

Ireland look for streetwise edge after bullying England boss Twickenham

Joe Schmidt and his coaches believe this squad has the skills to play an expansive game.

THERE ARE A few enduring images of Twickenham last weekend that don’t involve tries or kicks or passing or running.

Ireland’s head coach Joe Schmidt Schmidt will hope his side finds a tougher edge moving forward. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Flashes of moments like Owen Farrell smashing Johnny Sexton into the ground judo-style after the Ireland out-half had passed the ball, or Ben Youngs slamming into Sexton post-pass.

There’s England’s savvy locks closing the one-metre gap in the lineout, or Dylan Hartley putting a shoulder into CJ Stander as the Ireland flanker looks to get at scrum-half Ben Youngs.

All the gritty, aggressive and borderline illegal moments came from the English, in whom Eddie Jones is be rebuilding an oppositional and confrontational edge.

Hate us, Jones is suggesting, but he also wants England be a team others hate playing against.

On the other hand, Ireland appear to be lacking such an edge at present. Schmidt and his coaching staff don’t see the issue as one of leadership, rather of experience.

I don’t think leadership is an issue, because every player is expected to lead himself,” says assistant coach Richie Murphy. “They’re international rugby players, they’re guys that are doing this for a living and have to be able to go out and do that.

“Maybe a little bit of experience in some situations might make a difference, like once or twice at the weekend we were caught a little bit short in relation to doing things that were interfered with because of the fact that they’re a little bit more streetwise at times.

“So the experience I think is probably the key thing rather than necessarily the leadership.

“I think the guys who are in there at the moment are doing a good job. Obviously there are players missing, but if you look at the group of players that we have we still have a very good group that are capable of playing at this level.”

Owen Farrell tackles Jonathan Sexton Owen Farrell was an aggressive presence in the midfield battle. Andrew Fosker / INPHO Andrew Fosker / INPHO / INPHO

The ‘experience’ argument is one we’ve heard Ireland refer to a number of times during this championship.

Clearly, the loses of the likes of Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony, Tommy Bowe, Luke Fitzgerald and Sean O’Brien take away experience, but if we look at the starting XV from last weekend it is still littered with international know-how.

Rory Best, Jamie Heaslip, Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton, Keith Earls and Rob Kearney have all played for the Lions, while Andrew Trimble [61], Rory Best [92] and Devin Toner [34] have many more caps than their opposite numbers from last weekend.

Why aren’t these players showing more of a streetwise edge at set-piece and in open play? Why is it that all the bullying enforcers were on England’s side last weekend?

It can be, but it’s probably a negative side of the game as well,” says Murphy when asked if ‘streetwise’ is something that can be coached.

“It’s sort of borderline between ‘are you cheating or are you streetwise?’ It’s trying to get that balance really. I think players learn that from experience. Being out there seeing it and doing it, they can pick up those little things.”

More pressing in the Ireland camp right now is scoring tries. Two in their first three games in this championship is a meagre return and Murphy acknowledges that a few scores against Italy in two weekends’ time would be a great confidence boost for the group.

There was plenty of width to Ireland’s attacking approach against England, but the finished product was not there aside from Murray’s close-range sniping try.

Richie Murphy Murphy believes Ireland's players have the skills to play with width. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“The inter-play is there, the way we want to play the game is the way we played at the weekend,” says Murphy. “Players have the licence in this team; it is just a case of when they are doing that, they are expected to look after the ball.

“Whether that is support lines and they chase a little bit harder and maybe something… you don’t think it is going to happen and it happens and the player has knocked off, doesn’t quite get there, is a key part top converting those line-breaks.”

There were stuttering moments in Ireland’s attempts to shift the ball to the wide channels, with their skills letting them down at times or their shapes just being slightly mistimed or undersold in phase play.

Schmidt and his coaches have belief that this squad of players is skillful enough to execute such a game plan more effectively, though Murphy points out that the players have to carry it out with full conviction.

“I would say if you look through the team, the 23 players that were on the pitch at the weekend, I would say most of those guys feel comfortable with ball in hand. The thing is getting them to believe in what they’re doing a little bit as well.

“Things happen very, very quickly at international level and spaces are very, very small. If you second guess yourself that opportunity is gone. It’s just about them not actually over-thinking the situation and playing in the moment is probably the key thing.” / YouTube

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