Gordon D’Arcy: Joe Schmidt is a master of the mental game

The strength-in-depth that Ireland have continues to be nurtured by Joe Schmidt

A strong indicator of Leinster or Ireland being in a good collective head space is when Sean O’Brien won’t shut up. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA

A strong indicator of Leinster or Ireland being in a good collective head space is when Sean O’Brien won’t shut up. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA

 

The prisoner’s dilemma shows why two perfectly rational individuals – in this example Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton – might not cooperate, even if it appears to be in their best interests to do so.

It is Warren Gatland’s dilemma now. For the British and Irish Lions to win a test series in New Zealand, Gatland must get the best out of these dual play-makers.

Farrell has enough quality and strength in defence to wear 12 outside Sexton but the real value of this pairing would be seen by others profiting in attack.

The obvious solution is Sexton at 10, Farrell at 12, with Robbie Henshaw and Jonathan Joseph scrapping over the 13 jersey (along with Elliot Daly and Garry Ringrose), but who kicks at goal?

That makes for an interesting conversation come the week of the first test. Who wins that argument? Who makes that decision?

Gatland’s dilemma now.

The similarities are obvious in both character and dominance on the field (Farrell, now 25, is growing into a superb player and by all accounts a great guy to have in the team environment).

They got rightly stuck into each other on Saturday but that was inevitable, and nothing new, as it is clear they represent everything good about their respective teams.

In just two and half Six Nations games, Johnny ended any argument about who should play 10 for the Lions.

Dan Biggar, Finn Russell and George Ford are competing amongst themselves to tour.

Farrell is the next option at 10. He was really efficient when moved to outhalf for the last 15 minutes against Ireland. He has that Rugby League style about him, he’s an astute decision maker, but Johnny is an old school rugby union first-five that gets his team moving.

Farrell can get there, and a summer alongside Johnny might just accelerate the process.

Farrell, like Johnny or any of the great NFL quarterbacks, is willing to hold onto the ball until the best opportunity presents itself. That usually guarantees heavy contact as a flanker – such as Maro Itoje – knows he won’t be heavily punished for committing to a tackle when the outhalf still has the ball in his hands.

On 26 minutes Farrell, playing heads up rugby, put Daly into space with a brilliant chip over the defensive line (and he stayed alive to run a support line for the offload with the attack only stopped by Seanie O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony tackles while Johnny was first to the breakdown).

So, the Lions will have to find a workable balance in a very short space of time. It is a familiar narrative, one that Irish rugby are constantly trying to figure out.

Rotation now looks like Irish rugby’s ideal companion. Jamie Heaslip is far from finished as an international number eight. He is having one of his best ever seasons. He got injured and the door was opened for Peter O’Mahony to produce a fantastic performance at six. But could Pete produce that level of brutal physicality for five games in a row without getting injured? Could anyone?

CJ and Jamie are physical anomalies to the theory but even they need rest to play better.

People look at the current Ireland backrow conundrum and say four into three simply does not go.

Actually, it does or could.

A rotation policy is currently working at loosehead prop with a balance being struck between Jack McGrath starting and Cian Healy coming off the bench. Or vice versa, depending on the opposition or shape of both men on any given week.

That’s the key. The scientific advancements to check the fitness and energy levels of players provides Joe and all coaches with important information. They can also see who is shaping up well at training on the Tuesday.

Now, Ireland are not blessed in every position like we are at fullback, backrow and loosehead prop. But we are getting there.

It means that players have to change their perspectives in order to get the most out of them. They will never be happy with wearing number 17 or 20 but it can make Ireland a better team.

Players are hardwired into thinking: I play well this week, I start next week. That cannot be a non-negotiable any more. Granted, there will be exceptions for Tadhg, Johnny, CJ and Robbie but these are the players Ireland need at optimum levels when it really matters.

It is a treacherous balancing act. But Joe is the right man to make those decisions.

Joe also gives players the confidence to perform. Sometimes by putting enormous pressure on them.

Joe Schmidt is exactly the man needed to coach and bring on Ireland's strength-in-depth.
Joe Schmidt is exactly the man needed to coach and bring on Ireland's strength-in-depth.

There was that conversation he had with Rob Kearney just before the Chicago kick-off or a number of moments working with Kieran Marmion over the past two years.

Marmion didn’t make the World Cup squad but had been part of the training panel building up to that tournament. Joe wasn’t easy on him; he kept on him to improve fundamental areas essential to becoming the Ireland scrumhalf. He spoke as recently as November, post-Australia, about knowing Kieran can tackle, but not knowing whether he can control a Test match.

By saying that, Joe challenged him publicly. Privately, he would have been giving Kieran specific goals to improve with the reward of being selected for Ireland. He backed him.

I’ve seen Joe working away with players who are a year or so off the match 23. He reaches out to guys playing in France and England. He is keenly aware just how small our playing pool is.

He shows players the pathway; encourages them to aim for the standard of those currently in the Ireland team so in the event of injuries they are ready. We see this with players who, seemingly, come from nowhere yet hit the ground running.

The way Joe delivers a message is to put incredible pressure on the individual to improve but in the same breath he reveals a reward; selection is in your hands if you achieve this goal, or reach this standard. Convince me to pick you.

That’s great coaching.

Look at Luke McGrath when he came on; it looked like cap 20. Not his second game in a green jersey. That kick to the corner is why Leinster have already promoted Luke to their leadership group.

Eddie Jones calls the England bench “finishers.” The Irish management have had an expectation from their bench to be ready from the first to the 80th minute for some time.

Now, there are huge positives. Look at O’Mahony’s performance after two months on the bench, after missing out on the squad entirely in November. Same goes for Iain Henderson when given a start against England over Dev Toner.

Again, see Dev’s impact when he came on. It mattered.

The day of Brian O’Driscoll and Richie McCaw hitting 130-plus caps may be consigned to history. The first 30 caps I played for Ireland, props looked like props. The game wasn’t as attritional as it is today.

Rotation, if done correctly, is definitely Ireland’s companion on the road to Japan 2019. But only if world class players continue to embrace the decision.

Until now, we haven’t had the quality of players outside our starting XV to fully embrace this policy. We do now. And we will, more so, in the future. Of course we are always going to be shy in a couple of positions. That’s just a numbers thing.

Ireland have five backrowers who should be playing Six Nations. It could be seven next season if Dan Leavy and Jack Conan continue to improve. Factoring in injuries, they can now look to spread the work load across five or six men over five matches.

Andrew Conway's growth is a major plus for Ireland and he could begin to feature heavily.
Andrew Conway's growth is a major plus for Ireland and he could begin to feature heavily.

The result should produce more ravenous performances like O’Mahony produced against England.

I was at an event with Will Carling before the match and the double Grand Slam winning captain noted that you never really knew how your team will perform until about five or ten minutes into any game.

I knew we were in the fight to win on Saturday when I heard Seanie over the ref mic early on. A strong indicator of Leinster or Ireland being in a good collective head space is when Seanie won’t shut up.

It has a positive ripple effect because it makes everyone around him talk more. Especially in defence. When you hear Seanie you don’t have to look for him, or the person he is yelling at, so you focus on ensuring those around you are organised.

It lifts the team. I heard him on my ITV head phones for every scrum – talking his prop up before the ball was put-in until it was shipped on.

What I like about Seanie talking is he isn’t mouthy. He isn’t trying to distract or antagonise the opposition. He is bringing teammates up to the high intensity he is playing at; cajoling whoever was near him into the next moment, the next carry, the next tackle. It is incessant but great to hear.

Seanie had his match fitness back up to where he needed to be so he never shut up on Saturday. The energy was infectious.

It was also clear that Ireland are stacked full of leaders – Seanie, Johnny, CJ, Pete and even Luke McGrath, while Jared Payne is a leader in how he plays, in the decisions he makes.

That is not a pop at England, they are a younger group and as Jones says “14 months into a four year plan.” Ireland are just further down the track in terms of experience under Rory Best’s captaincy. It showed.

We have seen, yet again, just how good this Ireland team are when they starve opponents of the ball. Ireland had 75 per cent of the possession in the opening 35 minutes. That drains the life out of any defence.

Mistakes are inevitable, points will follow.

If Ireland got it right in those opening 20 minutes in Murrayfield and Rory was driven over for that try in Cardiff (and we kept a rampant Wales at home scoreless for the last 10 minutes) they would be the best team in the world.

But Ireland are not the only dog with a bone. Could they possibly be as motivated to beat France if not for defeat in Edinburgh? Same goes for how England were smashed but what if Ireland had won in Cardiff?

England struggled under the weight of expectation going for back-to-back Grand Slams and a 19 match unbeaten record. Just as any team would.

The overall analysis of this Six Nations has Ireland in a good place.

They lost away from home but so did everyone else.

Nothing in international rugby is a linear path. People isolate performances and immediately call for heads to roll. Stand back, view it all and there are clear incremental improvements in how Ireland are playing and performing since the summer tour of South Africa.

No rolling heads, just rotate our talent to ensure the maximum value is drawn from the 140 professionals on this island and more great days will follow.

Ireland are not the best team in the world, not the second best either, but we are a nightmare for those teams to play. That’s a decent launch pad for the future.

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