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Simon Hick column: Schmidt's Ireland aren't playing beautifully but they might never need to

Ireland have been beating the world’s top teams with a strong kicking game and sound fundamentals.

Joe Schmidt has used a different strategy with Ireland than he implemented with Leinster.
Joe Schmidt has used a different strategy with Ireland than he implemented with Leinster.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

WHEN JOE SCHMIDT got the job most people assumed Ireland would at some point play magnificent running rugby with original backline moves, counter attacks, multiple phases and lots of offloads. The reasoning was obvious – when he was on board with Clermont and Leinster both were loyal to the beautiful game, and wildly successful with it.

His sides were seen as a force for good because they proved you could win while also entertaining. It’s now becoming clear that Ireland may not follow that blueprint, and may never need to.

On Monday, after a couple of days of reflection, Johnny Sexton said that Schmidt would be the first to admit that what worked for the New Zealander at club level may not necessarily suffice in international rugby.

When Schmidt was weighing up his options before the last November series he would have factored in various things such as personnel available, lack of time with players, injuries, panel depth, the kind of athletes other teams had available, opposition coaching philosophies and where scores come from in the big World Cup and Six Nations games.

Jonathan Sexton Ireland's kicking game was razor-sharp in the November series. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The reality is that even if Sean O’Brien, Cian Healy, Iain Henderson and Andrew Trimble, to name some of the more explosive absentees, were all to become available at once, Ireland would still have less powerful ball carriers than New Zealand, South Africa, France and possibly England and Wales too.

What they do have, though, are lots of great decision makers, which is probably even more important. They also have a lot of players in the backs who can kick well. If you look at the backline chosen for the South Africa game Ireland had three fullbacks (Kearney, Henshaw, Payne) all who have a varied kicking game, Murray and Sexton (arguably the two best kicking halves in the world), Zebo (who is brilliant at clearance kicks, chips and grubbers) and Tommy Bowe, who doesn’t kick that often but is good when he needs to be.

Also, the reality is Ireland did try to run the ball at times, but in the two big November games the only ones to properly break a tackle were Jamie Heaslip and Peter O’Mahony. Rob Kearney made ground going against the grain, Sexton made a break leading up to Bowe’s try against South Africa, and Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne partially broke the gain line the odd time but it was only occasional and nothing a coach could rely on and build a gameplan off.

Even Paul O’Connell, Ireland’s man of the match against Australia, who made a huge number of brilliantly timed tackles, didn’t have an exceptional moment in attack, carrying eight times last Saturday, for a cumulative gain of seven yards.

Maybe the most interesting and most encouraging side effect of the way Ireland currently play is they resemble a team fighting for its life in a World Cup quarter or semi-final. The squad are, deliberately or inadvertently, preparing for the tighter, more nerve-racking games when offloads evaporate and smarter sides with better defences win out.

Andrew Trimble Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

This ‘big game’ factor applies on an individual basis as well as a collective one. Andrew Trimble had the greatest season of his life last year, and he gives Schmidt a fair bit of the credit for that.

The Ulster player believes that the advice his coach provides is actually even more beneficial in big games than it is in smaller ones. In international matches, Trimble says, you don’t get as many chances to make an impact so your job is to be involved in every aspect of the game; to hit rucks, to chase garryowens, to run decoys, and above all, to never make a defensive error. When all 23 players follow that line of thinking, you end up with a very consistent team.

The side issue of entertainment doesn’t really apply to Ireland at the moment. They still score tries and lots of points, they still launch attacks, they defend like wild dogs and the crowd in the Aviva have been more engaged over the last 12 months than at any stage since the stadium reopened.

Success provides its own cheer, and with nine wins from 10, the last year has been one big party.

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Simon Hick

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