Gerry Thornley: Cowman, McNulty among unsung heroes

Joe Schmidt has built not only excellent team but a backroom set-up to match

Gerry Thornley and Gavin Cummiskey dissect Ireland’s 25-9 victory over France in the final group game of Pool D. The result came at a cost with the injuries to key players such as Sexton, O‘Connell and Peter O’Mahoney .

 

The remnants of the Blarney Army awoke a little bleary-eyed to a sapphire blue Cardiff sky and glorious sunshine, and yet another remarkable clean-up of the city that on rugby weekends doesn’t sleep much. Dining al fresco in outdoor cafes, they gradually filed out of town save for a few loitering on until today, ahead of next weekend’s return invasion. Cue home match number five.

Ireland have, perhaps, become the new Munster, for the way The Fields reverberated under the Millennium Stadium’s closed roof sent a surge of energy through the ranks of the Irish players akin to those scenes from O’Connell Street in Limerick for Munster’s breakthrough Heineken Cup in 2006.

When play resumed, Robbie Henshaw stood up Mathieu Bastareaud and did him like a kipper, and this in turn led to the feeding-time-at-the-zoo frenzied assault on the French line and Rob Kearney’s try. It felt like all three moments were inextricably linked.

So like New Zealand four years ago, four home games and four pool wins. Alas, we all know what happened next, when a superior Wales mugged Ireland in the quarter-finals, and this Argentina team – like so many before them – have once more thrived in tournament play.

The same is true of the Irish squad, who were obliged to move into Cardiff city centre on Saturday night before returning to Celtic Manor for one night and then re-locating to another Cardiff city hotel yesterday for the ensuing week. The opportunity to step out the front door and stroll the streets, or go for a coffee, should be a welcome change of pace.

Sitting and eating amongst the fans was Ian Madigan, who on Sunday stepped out of the Johnny Sexton’s shadow and came of age as an international player.

Exceptional

There are many heroes, acknowledged or unsung, who contributed to Sunday’s resourceful and epic win. Joe Schmidt has assembled an exceptional management team as well as playing squad, whether it be the coaches, video analysts, medical team, and strength and conditioning team under Jason Cowman.

Cowman is regularly referenced by Schmidt and the players for his expertise. With no cryotherapy, altitude training or warm weather training, and without setting foot outside Ireland save for the warm-up games in Cardiff and Twickenham, once again Ireland’s fitness levels shone through in the end.

Second Captains

And then there’s the contribution of sports psychologist Enda McNulty. That Madigan performed with such composure and effectiveness was a tribute to his mental strength.

He has proved this time and again. Like when he missed that penalty for Blackrock College in the quarter-finals of the Leinster Schools Senior Cup at Donnybrook and cut a distraught figure in Gleeson’s pub that night.

Or when his career seemed to stall, notably when Matt O’Connor started preferring Jimmy Gopperth to him. Or when he threw out the pass that Bryan Habana intercepted to kill off Leinster’s European Champions Cup hopes in extra time of last season’s semi-final. Or the missed late penalty in Murrayfield on Super Saturday.

Each time his mental strength is questioned, and each time he comes back, be it from those significant setbacks or smaller ones in games. As with Brian O’Driscoll resurrecting his career after a relative wobble in belief, or Tommy Bowe rediscovering his mojo against Romania and again last Sunday, Madigan is quick to acknowledge the positive psychological work of McNulty. Thanks to him, the old maxim holds true; form is temporary, class is permanent.

Madigan’s body language might appear cocky to some, but it is something he works on with McNulty, because he realises a goal-kicking outhalf has to impart that to his team-mates. Never was that more necessary than on Sunday in the 28th minute, from the moment he confidently ran onto the pitch and straight over to his pack and Conor Murray. He relished it. He actually seemed to be really enjoying himself on that pitch.

Of course, Schmidt’s own famed attention to detail also contributes to the seamless replacement of players – even Ireland’s two most important ones and their best performing player in a triple whammy inside half an hour.

This comes from the detailed homework every player in the entire squad is obliged to do, so that the knowledge of their roles is so consuming it gives each individual the confidence to contribute, no matter the circumstances.

Schmidt’s selection of Madigan to start against Romania was vindicated. Madigan was his back-up to Sexton and he was letting him know this. Madigan was thus more familiar with the role. Jamie Heaslip stepped into the captaincy, as he has done many times before and will henceforth. Chris Henry stepped in at openside and Seán O’Brien stepped across.

Business end

Yes, Ireland are having to dig deep now, but Rhys Ruddock has been in the programme and seamlessly stepped in at a few hours’ notice against South Africa in November last year. Ruddock is short on game-time but would provide the kind of ballast for the brutally physical rugby that is now de rigeur at the business end of the tournament.

Word is that some of the moves that came off against France were practised to perfection in August, with France in mind. So it was that within three minutes of Madigan replacing Sexton, the backs went through that move from off the top lineout ball which saw Bowe carve through the blue line from Robbie Henshaw’s inside pass. Everybody knew the drill, everybody slotted in.

As Simon Hick said on Second Captains yesterday, Schmidt even reduces bad luck from the equation. gthornley@irishtimes.com

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