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Ireland pack making minor tweaks to solid foundations under Easterby

Joe Schmidt’s new forwards coach explains that small adjustments can help Ireland stay ahead of the opposition.

“MASTERY REQUIRES ENDLESS remastery. That’s what few winners realise and explains to some degree why repeating it is so difficult.” - Bill Walsh, ‘The Score Takes Care of Itself.’

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Paul OÕConnell wins a lineout Ireland's line-out was a key strength last season. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Some might argue that Ireland’s forwards did not quite achieve mastery last season under John Plumtree, but they were pretty damn good. A superb, multi-optioned line-out and technically excellent maul were behind much of the play that led to a Six Nations title.

Plumtree has since returned home to New Zealand, with 65-times capped former Ireland back row Simon Easterby accepting Joe Schmidt’s offer to replace him.

The lure of working with Schmidt and moving into the international sphere was impossible to resist for Easterby, who left a head coaching position with the Scarlets to succeed Plumtree.

His task is to improve an Ireland pack that has performed extremely efficiently in the last 12 months or so. “The foundations are pretty strong,” admits Easterby, but there are tweaks that he can make to maintain the progress.

I think the better you become, the stronger you become, sides will inevitably want to bring you down,” says Easterby of job he faces. “Analysis these days has become a big part of our game. I think we’ve just got to keep working one step ahead of everyone.

“I wouldn’t say there’s a huge amount that needs changing. I think if you decide that you’ve made it and you’re as good as you can be, then sides are going to overtake you. Sometimes you’ve got to back yourselves and back what you’re already done, but sometimes you’ve got to go and look at things slightly differently.

“That’s probably where I’ve had the opportunity over the last 12 months to look at what the team’s done from the outside and now I’ve got the opportunity to come in and possibly look at things in a different way.”

Simon Easterby Easterby spoke to the media at Carton House this afternoon. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“If it’s not broke, you don’t need to fix it – and it’s been very, very good so far – but there’s always going to be things in forward play in particular where scrums and line-outs get picked up.”

“Analysis is done, every single game is covered from four angles, and those are the sorts of things that sides are going to be working out. We’ve got to stay one step ahead of them.”

So while the jumping trio of Devin Toner, Peter O’Mahony and Paul O’Connell are likely to remain important pieces in the make-up of Ireland’s pack, the set-ups and line-out playbook under which they operate may begin to take on a new shape.

Not because Plumtree’s system was lacking, more so because South Africa will have minutely analysed each aspect of it.

Easterby has enjoyed his first few months working alongside the likes of scrum coach Greg Feek, defence coach Les Kiss and kicking specialist Richie Murphy. It has been the opportunity to learn from Schmidt that was perhaps most appealing of all in joining Ireland.

At 39, Easterby is still a young coach, even if he has already demonstrated his ability with the Scarlets. Aside from the coaching staff, the 2005 Lion has been deeply impressed by the player-driven nature of the Ireland set-up.

“The players have been excellent, that’s one of the things I’ve noticed since coming into camp in August, September and now this one. Joe expects a lot of the players, he puts pressure on them to respond, to know their roles, to be knowledgable.

Simon Easterby Easterby left a position as head coach of the Scarlets to join Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“To a man, the players have been excellent, they understand that it is another level up. Rugby Champions Cup is a good standard and they’ve come off the back of a really good couple of weeks, have a bit of confidence, but you can’t look past South Africa and what they’re bringing.

“They’ve been excellent, the senior players like Paulie, Rory Best, Jamie [Heaslip] in the forwards in particular. They’ve been around a long time now and they know what works at this level from a playing perspective.

“Sometimes as a coach you can look at things too much and over-analyse. What works is sometimes different to what you think will work. It’s important that we get that balance.”

Injuries have denied Easterby the opportunity to work with the likes of Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy this November, but Ireland’s forwards coach is more enthusiastic about the opportunities those absences afford lesser-lauded players.

We need to build depth in the squad anyway and I think the guys that can’t make this series through injury means an opportunity for someone else to come in, put their hand up and stake a claim for Six Nations and beyond.

“Instead of changing things, I think it’s about new players coming in who maybe haven’t been in the environment as much before and getting up to speed. I think it’s really important that they understand that we can’t look back. We’ve got to keep moving forward.”

Six Nations champions just seven months ago, this Ireland forward pack must not dwell on what has been achieved. Under Easterby, they will make tweaks against South Africa, Georgia and Australia as they look to remaster their arts.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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