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Simon Hick column: No such thing as the 'Joe Schmidt style'

Rather than fuss over pretty patterns, the Kiwi coach is figuring out new ways to win each game.

Image: ©INPHO/Colm O'Neill

BEFORE JOE SCHMIDT took the Irish job the media and opposition coaches assumed they knew what a typical Schmidt gameplan looked like, and that he would impose it as best he could on the national side. After five games in charge its becoming clear there’s no such blueprint.

In the six-day turn around between the Scotland and Wales fixtures (which meant just two training sessions) the team fundamentally changed their offensive strategy from one focused on possession to one centred on a devilish kicking game.

Against New Zealand they used aggressive one-up runners to great effect, a tactic we haven’t really seen before or since. The Leinster loop move emerged briefly against Scotland, but didn’t get an outing against Wales or in the November tests. Every time the opposition video analysts think they have something concrete to work on, the team evolves.

Its not just on the pitch where Schmidt has morphed. The reality of limited player access at international level has changed his approach to management. The most noticeable difference between Ireland 2013/14 and Leinster 2012/13 is the current lack of creative backline moves, counter attacks and offloads. Those extra flourishes require patience, intuition, decent weather and the right personnel. We can assume they will be needed against the better sides, but for the moment, practicality trumps flair.

Apart from limited practice time, the other big change is the range of rugby brains he now has access to. After the Wales game he was keen to state that recent improvements have come about thanks to everyone in camp chipping in with ideas and solutions. He used the word ‘player led’ to describe the way this group now operates which Paul O’Connell, Rory Best and Peter O’Mahony have all since confirmed to be the case.

Source: ©INPHO/James Crombie

One man Schmidt also seems to be listening to is his forwards coach John Plumtree. The former Natal Sharks boss was identified as a world leader in breakdown technique, which was one of the main reasons he got the job. His side didn’t win all the time in the Super 15, but they always flowed. Rugby is a lot more interesting to watch when a coach’s influence manifests itself clearly on the field of play, and even the most casual rugby fan can see that Plumtree has transformed the maul, turnover count, lineout and ruck technique since last season.

This management team have no choice but to be innovative and adaptable. The Irish squad is the smallest in the championship, doesn’t have huge pace in the backline and has completely new backrow and back three combinations. Unlike France, we won’t win matches if our tactics and execution are inferior.

Habit

In the last three games not one Irish player has had a bad game and all have carried out orders to the letter of the law. That’s not something you can rely on happening throughout the championship, but at the same time Schmidt’s teams have a weird habit of consistently performing above themselves. This probably comes down to them knowing what’s expected of them, even when what’s expected changes from game to game.

For all those positives, there’s no doubt Ireland will need some of the fancy stuff to click if they’re to win in Twickenham. England number eight Billy Vunipola says they’re working on stopping O’Connell and the maul. Given the way the Irish team has ducked and dived so far in the tournament, pre conceived plans may not be of much use to him, but England will still be able to impose their game on Ireland in a way no other side in the northern hemisphere can.

It will be Schmidt’s first away game but self discipline, cold hearted decision making and adaptability hint that his side could be good on the road too. Hard headed, obsessive and unpredictable as the wind, either way it will be fun seeing what the New Zealander has cooked up for Saturday week.

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Simon Hick

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