Grand Plan

Schmidt needs to find answers after record hammering by England

The Ireland head coach insists his team are working towards peaking at the World Cup.

FOR SOME OF those supporters who went into Saturday with pessimistic concerns about Ireland’s World Cup prospects, that sense had twisted into full-scale panic mode by the end of a 57-15 hammering at Twickenham.

It felt like the dark old days when Ireland were perennial whipping boys in the Five Nations and took a few hidings from the English along the way, including the previous record losing margin of 40 points in 1997, and the former record of points scored by England of 50 in the year 2000.

jean-kleyn-and-rory-best-dejected-on-the-sidelines Ireland had no answers for an excellent England performance. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Of course, this was different in being a World Cup warm-up, where the results are generally unimportant, but there is no sidestepping the fact that Ireland’s performance in London was worrying.

Everyone expected England to show they are ahead of Ireland in readiness, having had two physically tough battles with Wales before Saturday’s encounter, but the scale of the gap between the teams was eye-opening and underlined that Joe Schmidt is now chasing the leading contenders. 

The Ireland head coach most likely expected to lose to England but he certainly wouldn’t have foreseen a 42-point margin between the teams. That kind of thumping can genuinely undermine confidence in a group and sow seeds of doubt in players’ minds – if they weren’t there already after this year’s Six Nations.

Schmidt has a huge job on his hands on all fronts now – mentally, physically, technically and tactically.

On the physical side of things, Schmidt pointed to Ireland’s heavy eight-day training camp in Portugal in an attempt to explain why his players looked so lethargic.

He continued to assert that peaking for Scotland in their World Cup pool opener on 22 September is the real key.

“When you have a volume of work in your legs, there’s only a degree where you can get mind over matter, and there’s a point at which your legs are a bit heavy and you’re a bit sluggish,” said Schmidt.

“We’ve got to make sure that now we get our periodisation right, that we’re starting to temper [the workload in training] so that we can make sure we are peaking at the right time.

joe-schmidt-and-andy-farrell Schmidt watches on in concern at Twickenham. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“That is in four weeks’ time, but there’s pressure to make sure that we’re not too far off peaking over the next two weeks because we need to get a lot of our process elements up to speed.”

It was a worry for Ireland to be outmuscled by England again, having been bullied during the Six Nations. Most teams will struggle to live with athletes like Billy Vunipola, Maro Itoje and Manu Tuilagi at their rampaging best but Ireland will need to find a way – particularly with another huge side, the Springboks, potentially waiting if they can reach the World Cup quarter-finals.

“I think it’s not always bigger is better,” said Schmidt. “We saw Jacob Stockdale get around Joe Cokanasiga at one stage and but for his right heel going on the line, I think he gives that ball up, potentially, to Andrew Conway and we’re away to score, you know?

“I’d like to think that a guy like Garry Ringrose, he’s such a good athlete, a smart player and he plays bigger than he is. His hit on Joe Marler today, now I think he was pretty sore afterwards, but that’s a willingness to put your body on the line. 

“You can line the players up and say, ‘Look, size, strength, numbers against numbers, how do we stay competitive?’ And yet over the last six years, it’s probably tit-for-tat against England. We’ve matched them and they’ve matched us.”

Schmidt also has real injury worries over Cian Healy and Joey Carbery. Johnny Sexton sat out much of training last week and is unlikely to feature until the final warm-up game against Wales, while Conor Murray took a blow to the head/neck against England.

On the technical front, it was concerning for Schmidt to see Ireland’s shortcomings, very much a continuation from the Six Nations.

There were inaccurate passes which checked the receiver, poor defensive technique as Ireland missed 38 tackles, weak ball retention in contact, and sloppy clearouts, while the lifting, jumping and throwing at the lineout was shambolic at times. 

conor-murray-with-rob-kearney-and-will-addison-on-the-sidelines Conor Murray, Rob Kearney and Will Addison after defeat. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“It’s always a collective thing,” said Schmidt of the lineout, while indicating the defensive quality of England’s Itoje and George Kruis. “I think there were a couple of calls that we put ourselves under pressure on.

“We put a bit of pressure on [lineout caller] Iain Henderson by being a bit slow with our process and they could see the picture early and then they can get into it.

“I would have to say our lineout has been a massive strength for us and we have jumbled a few things around during this week and obviously Iain and Jean Kleyn have never played together, so you’re always going to be a little bit sticky from that perspective.”

Tactically, we only saw glimpses of what Schmidt had intended for Ireland to do in Twickenham, as they failed to launch off the crumbling lineout.

There was another twist on their exits as Rob Kearney used his left boot, there was some interesting shape in phase play with decoy runners coming very close to the ruck and Conor Murray playing out the back, while Jordan Larmour’s try on turnover possession saw Kearney passing over the top of edge defender Cokanasiga in encouraging fashion.

Kearney offloaded on a kick return early in the game too – a rarity for Ireland – as Schmidt looks to develop that side of his team’s game. But on other occasions, they reverted to one-out phases that struggled to make a dent in the powerful English defence.

Defensively, Andy Farrell has lots to work on. At times, it looked like Ireland’s players didn’t know what system they were playing in.

Their defence from set-piece was very poor on several occasions against an admittedly sharp English attack, while tries like the ones Maro Itoje and Tom Curry scored simply shouldn’t be conceded by a team with ambitions like Ireland. This was basic stuff that cannot be explained away by fatigue.

jacob-stockdale-dejected-after-the-game Ireland will need to work hard to keep confidence in the group. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Perhaps most important for Schmidt, though, is shoring up his players on the mental front. They looked shell-shocked at the final whistle on Saturday and this heavy defeat will only add to the damage of this year’s Six Nations.

Ireland have never given up on a game under Schmidt but looked beaten early in the second half at Twickenham.

“It isn’t usually a problem for us,” said Schmidt of his squad’s mental state. “I have been incredibly lucky for the last six and a half years to work with a group of young men who, honestly, fight tooth and nail for their country. 

“They give up bigger contracts elsewhere to stay here and try and make sure they do that. I don’t foresee it being a problem in the future.”

As Schmidt looks forward, he must hope this short-term pain yields long-term gain.

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