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Joe Schmidt: My Ireland team has licence to offload and take risks

The Kiwi head coach explains his philosophy around risk taking on the pitch.

THERE’S BEEN MUCH written about Joe Schmidt’s Ireland and the lack of offloads in their general play, including articles on the pages of The42, but the man himself says there is room for such risks as long as they’re calculated.

Bernard Foley stops Simon Zebo's offload to Jonathan Sexton as he is tackled by Matt Toomua There was lots of interesting debate around Simon Zebo's offload against Australia in November. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The Kiwi’s side is increasingly being perceived as kick-focused, risk-free and based around exceptionally detailed game plans that exploit opposition weaknesses, and all of those suggestions are certainly founded in a strong degree of truth.

Others have asked where the space for bursts of creativity is; are the players being allowed the freedom to gamble in attack and do things the defence isn’t expecting?

Ireland had just 27 offloads over the course of their five games in last year’s Six Nations, while France, for example, were at the other end of the scale with a total of 84, so the numbers do back up assertions that Schmidt’s side aren’t overly fond of offloading.

Before we go any further, it’s worth pointing out that Schmidt quite literally has no one to answer to in this case. He won the Six Nations at his first attempt, had a victorious tour to Argentina and then a clean sweep of the November Tests last year.

His record in charge of Ireland speaks for itself.

Still, we put the point to Schmidt and asked whether there will be more space for offloads from Ireland this season. The former Clermont backs coach outlined that he has noticed the discussion around this subject and stated his belief that it’s been overplayed.

“It’s not something that I’m not aware of,” says Schmidt. “If you look back at last year’s Six Nations, I think we scored the most tries [they did, with 16 in their five games].

“If you look back at our last game against the French [the 22-20 win in Paris to secure the Six Nations title last year], all three of the tries came from the ball being passed and carried.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt's record as Ireland coach speaks for itself. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I think you cut your cloth, and I think sometimes somebody reports something and other people pick it up and believe it, and then repeat it. Then it becomes a written truth.”

Schmidt did, however, underline that Ireland tend to go with highly-detailed game plans that the players can strictly adhere to, while still allowing the possibility for offloads and risks when they are favourable.

“We focus on playing maybe a little bit to our strengths, maybe a little bit to our opposition, what we perceive their weaknesses to be,” says Schmidt. “What we can tell you is that there aren’t that many weaknesses in our opponents.

“That’s the nature of the Six Nations championship and that’s why you’ve got to bring a degree of variety in your game. I think we’ll continue to strive to have a bit of variety in our game.

If there’s the opportunity to offload, it’s a great way to keep the ball alive without being slowed down by a ruck, where you’ve got to commit numbers around the ball, where you can keep numbers more widespread and play in a wider pattern.

“I think that we’ll continue to analyse game-by-game and try to build game-by-game, to determine what best suits us on any given day. It’s impossible to be exactly accurate with that, because your opposition turn up and do something slightly different, the weather sometimes dictates things and so you’ve got to be adaptable at the same time.”

Clearly Schmidt is not totally anti-offload, and there were some shining examples that he could point to as evidence of that, particularly Brian O’Driscoll’s efforts against Italy last year or, going a little further back, a pair from Sean O’Brien in the 2013 defeat by the All Blacks.

And yet, there isn’t a total commitment to pushing his players to release the ball in the tackle. We asked flanker Chris Henry about this immediately after last year’s Six Nations win in France, and the Ulsterman provided some insight.

Paul O'Connell lifts the trophy Ireland's Six Nations-clinching win in Paris featured some enterprising attacking play. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Simply put, if you want to be the very best rucking team in the world – which Schmidt most certainly does – there can’t be any hesitancy from the arriving players. If they’re worrying about catching an offload, that affects their accuracy in smashing the ruck.

“In training throughout this whole campaign, there has been a massive focus on our rucking out, our technique and making sure the person who carries the ball does his role and the two support players hit the right areas and target the right men,” said Henry.

“I think Joe wouldn’t be as pro-offloading as other teams, because I think he wants to make sure there’s a clear, definite carrier who’s going to carry straight to form the ruck well.

It’s worked very well for us, it means you get quick ball. He’s not a coach that says you can’t offload, it just has to be on.”

That sums the matter up succinctly for us. You can throw the offload, but it had better stick. It’s worth briefly underlining that Henry’s quotes are from March, 2014; a lot can change in 10 months.

There was much chat around Simon Zebo’s offload against Australia in the November Tests, although one feels that had it been a different player there may not have been as much focus on the incident.

At that point, assistant coach Les Kiss echoed both Schmidt and Henry’s sentiments on Ireland’s offloading philosophy.

“We’ll back our players to play what they see,” said Kiss. “We still could have made the tackles that mattered in that moment. Certainly we’re not about being frivolous with the ball, but we also back our players to play if we see the opportunities.”

Sean O'Brien O'Brien is a player who offloads the ball superbly, in part thanks to his ability to win the gainline collisions. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

That’s just it, Schmidt and his coaching staff are leaving the possibility of the offload open to the men who take to the field, those who have the best view and best cues to use in their decision-making.

Even beyond offloading – to running the ball out of their own half, throwing long passes across the face of a blitz defence, chipping the ball short in an attempt to regather, quick tapping a penalty – Schmidt wants his players to maintain a degree of autonomy.

“It’s always a balance,” says Schmidt. “I think the players would be reasonably open in saying that they have a licence to play. If they see an opportunity and they want to make the most of it, then they know they have the licence to play.

It’s just a case of what the leaders, the guys on the pitch, feel is necessary at any given time. We had our last training today, we had the captain’s run tomorrow. I think it’s one of the strengths of the group, that the experienced players lead themselves.

“That allows them to be relatively autonomous on the pitch and to make, in the most part, really good decisions. It’s an important part of us keeping tempo in the game, keeping our opponents guessing and I think to a degree it encourages players’ enjoyment of the game.

“They’re risk takers, they like to get out and try to match up, see what they can do to be inventive and to encourage a game that’s something they enjoy.”

It’s never likely to be an offload orgy, but Ireland are open to taking risks and keeping the ball alive. Whatever it takes to win; that remains priority number one.

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Murray Kinsella

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