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Schmidt versus Townsend is a riveting Six Nations coaching battle

The Ireland and Scotland coaches both have an exceptional ability to tailor their game plans to the opposition.

BACK WHEN GREGOR Townsend was appointed head coach of Glasgow Warriors in 2012, he had a long and detailed conversation with Joe Schmidt.

Townsend was a big admirer of Schmidt’s Leinster team and while we don’t know exactly what the Kiwi shared with his Scottish counterpart, one has to wonder if Schmidt has any regrets about sharing his knowledge and acting as a sounding board for Townsend.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt and Ireland are top of the Six Nations. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Fast forward six years and the pair of them are getting ready to go head-to-head for the first time at Test level in Saturday’s Six Nations clash between Ireland and Scotland.

Both coaches have naturally developed since 2012 and they have different priorities with their teams, but there is an intelligent streak that both of them share.

Ireland are a relatively patterned attacking team, with Schmidt a deeply analytical coach who so often tailors his side’s game plan to the opposition. Of course, almost every coach in the world makes tweaks depending on who they are playing against, but Schmidt is on another level.

There are core elements that always remain in place no matter who Ireland are playing, but that tailoring to exploit and negate the opposition’s traits is more obvious than with many other Test teams.

Take the victory over Wales two weekends ago, for example, a win that would have been more comfortable but for missed points from the tee and some poor decision-making in defence.

Knowing how Wales fill their defensive line with bodies in their own half, Schmidt’s game plan saw Ireland attacking with width and passing ambition from deep in their own territory. Clever inside passes exploited the Welsh line speed further up the pitch.

Once they gained a foothold in the Welsh 22, Ireland focused on their powerful ball-carrying game – backing themselves to outmuscle a Wales pack that has changed in the last year or so and is evidently not yet as ferocious as previous incarnations.

With good latching onto ball-carriers pre-contact, Ireland won the collisions, while their centres ran intelligent lines back against the grain and from outside the peripheral vision of the Welsh defenders who had eyes in on the rucks.

Joe Schmidt The Ireland coach is hugely intelligent in picking out opposition flaws. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Ireland’s maul, having been relatively unused in this Six Nations, made huge gains for Schmidt’s men, both psychologically and in terms of field position. 18 intelligent kicks allowed Ireland to pressure Wales at other times, while they controlled the tempo of the game with composure.

Several of these aspects of the victory are common to other Ireland wins under Schmidt, but the small tweaks were fresh evidence of the head coach’s ability to tailor his team’s approach to limit the opposition’s strengths and pick apart their potential weaknesses.

We only had to look to Murrayfield on the same weekend for a strong illustration that Townsend has developed a similar coaching edge – perhaps inspired by Schmidt.

Townsend’s side brought a familiar dangerous edge to their attack out in the 15-metre channels in their stirring win over England, with Finn Russell, Huw Jones and Stuart Hogg forming a thrilling attacking triumvirate once again.

But also of interest was how Scotland brought a greater focus to the breakdown in this game, exploiting the English phase-play shape that sometimes leaves Eddie Jones’ team with just one rucking player arriving immediately after the tackle. John Barclay and co. had a field day.

Meanwhile, Russell was able to exploit the English tendency to have outside centre Jonathan Joseph rush up aggressively, sometimes getting detached from his wing – as in the case for the Scotland out-half’s divine pass to Huw Jones before Sean Maitland’s try.


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Scotland brought an increased concentration to their maul defence too, appreciating how they could make major mental gains over the English by taking that potential platform out of the game.

The brilliance of the Scottish attack – they would have had a bonus point but for Peter Horne’s failure to exploit a huge overlap in the second half – deserves so much of the attention, but Townsend’s tailoring of the game plan to specifically deal with England was deeply intelligent.

Gregor Townsend Townsend is superb at analysing opposition teams. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

And so, Schmidt and Townsend’s ability to accurately identify areas in which their teams can exploit the opposition make this weekend all the more fascinating.

It’s a challenge for both coaching staffs to predict where they will be targeted.

“I think they’ve shown how positive they’ve been ball in hand, how they’ve been prepared to keep width in their game,” says Ireland assistant coach Simon Easterby of the Scots.

“I think they were very effective at either stopping England’s momentum or turning the ball over and were pretty disruptive at the contact area.

“You’ve got a couple of areas there that you know are going to be direct to us, so it’s about us being really clinical when we’ve got the ball, making sure that we don’t allow those threats to get in over the ball.

“Players like Barclay, Hamish Watson, [Stuart] McInally are all guys that are real threats if we allow our ball-carriers to get isolated.

“The flip side of that is making sure that when we don’t have the ball, that we deal with the situations in front of us.

“At times in this campaign, we’ve defended really well, but there’s been times when guys have gone and done things out of the system and that’s created some opportunities for the opposition.

“So, it’s about staying connected on both sides of the ball and making sure we don’t give them those little windows to get into the game.”

Those little windows are exactly the kind of thing that Schmidt and Townsend thrive on.

May the best rugby mind win.

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