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'The players were a bit broken by the fallout from the England game'

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt says he’s worried, just like he was last year.

CONFIDENCE CAN BE such a fickle thing, even in the world of professional sports where individuals of great mental strength compete.

In 2018, the confidence kept on building for Joe Schmidt’s Ireland as they backed up achievement after achievement.

But all it took was 80 minutes to dent that self-belief in 2019, as England came to Dublin in the first round of the Six Nations and left with a bonus-point victory that ended Ireland’s Grand Slam defence at the first time of asking.

Joe Schmidt Joe Schmidt during Ireland's game in Rome on Sunday. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

As we saw on Sunday in their stuttering win over Italy in Rome, Ireland are still dealing with the aftershocks.

There were positives in an away win against Scotland in round two but the opening games of this championships provide some evidence that Ireland have taken a step backwards in terms of the quality they’re delivering on the pitch.

Head coach Joe Schmidt reckons it’s now time for Ireland to take a step backwards mentally too, releasing the tension that has built after that harrowing defeat to England.

“I think sometimes when players haven’t played for a long time and they don’t quite get it perfect when they come back in, they can get a little frustrated and then try too hard,” said Schmidt on Sunday evening as the dust settled at Stadio Olimpico.

“And when they try too hard, it doesn’t go well for them and then they start to lose a bit of confidence.

“We always talk about going forward, but sometimes you’ve got to take a step back and take a deep breath and not panic because I think the players were a bit… I suppose a bit broken by the fallout from the England game and then suddenly they start to question themselves.

“I think the coaching staff, it’s our job to re-energise the group and reignite the confidence.

“There’s a couple of times where I felt we could have taken a risk today but we didn’t take the risk because we’re feeling a little bit suffocated and you can’t play within yourself, not if you want to beat a good team and the good teams are tough to beat.”

Joe Schmidt before the game Schmidt and his coaches face a big challenge in re-energising their players. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Schmidt was keen to caution anyone tempted to underestimate Italy, crediting Conor O’Shea’s side for pressuring Ireland at the lineout, in the rucks and with choke tackle attempts, while he also pointed out that four changes in his own starting pack “was a risk.” 

“But we want to take some risks, we want the players to feel a bit of pressure because we know that potentially can happen at any stage,” continued Schmidt, indicating that injuries can strike first-choice players at any time.

With some comparisons to the 2007 World Cup being made in recent days, there is worry among many Ireland fans at the form of Schmidt’s team.

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The Ireland head coach says he shares that concern, but then he is always of that mind.

“I would just say I am as worried as they are,” said Schmidt. “I do not have any crystal ball, other than to say I know how hard this group work and to say we have had fantastic support, and the group massively appreciate it.

“I’m worried, I was worried this time last year. I worry about the performances when we win. This time last year we won 37-27 against Wales, we’re 30-27 up in the last play of the game and we get an intercept try [from Jacob Stockdale] to get a differential.

“I think you can sugarcoat things sometimes because of where you end up, not because of what you did in the process.

“We beat France with a late drop goal in injury time. I felt we were super in the first half against England [last year]. That’s probably the benchmark and that’s what we’ve got to keep working our way back towards.” 

John Ryan and Sean Cronin Ireland need to find their confidence again quickly. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

As ever, Schmidt remains convinced that the margins at the top-end of Test rugby are extremely fine.

The differences between winning and losing can be very minor. The Ireland boss is hoping his team can now come out on the right side performance-wise and in terms of results in their closing two Six Nations encounters against France and Wales.

“As you saw with England [against Wales], it doesn’t take too many changes and I think England aren’t quite the same team if they’re missing a few players that they are missing, as much as they’ve got a strength in depth of other guys coming in, so it is fickle,” said Schmidt.

“We feel that we can put a really good performance together and it’s got to be in two weeks’ time and then we’ve got a six-day turnaround to Wales.

“We start the World Cup with Scotland and then a six-day turnaround to Japan so I think, for us, that’s a perfect opportunity to get as close as we possibly can in a competition to where we’ll need to be come the Rugby World Cup.” 

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Murray Kinsella

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