Edge between Schmidt and Gatland adds to rivalry
Ireland coach admits frustration over accusations attack lacks cutting edge
It would have been fascinating to see Joe Schmidt and Warren Gatland work together with the Lions. Of course Schmidt declined Gatland’s offer to be part of the coaching ticket, keen as he was to oversee a young Irish squad touring the USA and Japan in the build up to next year’s World Cup, and seemingly there remains an edge between these high-achieving Kiwi coaches.
Much like the Celtic rivalry itself, to be renewed at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow, at times the relationship has appeared strained as well as respectful. This dates back to this fixture in 2014 when, following Ireland’s win over Wales, Gatland said that Ireland “kicked the leather off the ball”.
Following Wales’s 23-16 win in Cardiff three years ago, Gatland said: “I don’t think Ireland play a lot of rugby but they’ve been incredibly successful. I thought they were really narrow at times.”
Although describing Ireland as “a quality side”, he added: “When they played with ball in hand, we didn’t feel like we were under a huge amount of pressure.”
Prior to the 2016 meeting between England and Ireland, Eddie Jones weighed in by claiming Ireland kicked the ball 60 per cent of the time, to which Schmidt pointed out that England’s kicking ratio was actually higher.
But Jones returned to this theme before last season’s meeting when forecasting, so to speak: “It will be raining high balls – it will be kick and clap, and the fans at the Aviva Stadium love it.”
Asked yesterday if it frustrated him that the Irish attack can be pigeon-holed as blunt, Schmidt said: “Sometimes it is frustrating because one opposition coach has tried to create that story and people have picked it up without doing their own analysis.
"I think there is a degree of frustration from our players. I am not sure why he would get more credence than (Argentina coach) Daniel Hourcade who was really impressed or by (South Africa coach) Allister Coetzee who was really impressed. It is not generally one ‘summery’ way that you play if the forecast is a bit up and down for a Saturday. Yes we didn’t score a try in Paris but we found a way, and in a Test match that’s what you have to do sometimes.”
Pointing out that Ireland made “more line-breaks than they [Wales] did” three years ago, before hailing their “incredibly good defence” under Shaun Edwards and the “respect” he has for the Scarlets coach Wayne Pivac, Schmidt added: “Rob Howley has taken that and grabbed it, and he is doing a few things himself that are certainly going to challenge us.”
In last week’s Irish Times, Gordon D’Arcy made the point that Conor Murray and Bundee Aki have helped to ease the decision-making load on Johnny Sexton, and cited the sharply-constructed Murray try as an example.
Schmidt agreed that was a fair observation “in that it was better spread when Jared Payne was there. Jared is an incredibly intelligent player. He came in for one game last year, against England, and it’s the only loss England have had in two and a half years. He is a very smart player, so he took a lot of responsibility off Johnny as well.
“I think Bundee is starting to, but Bundee has only had less than a handful of Tests and Chris (Farrell) has had even less, so it still is a balance and unfortunately for us until we get these guys into these opportunities and allow them to understand what it takes in how to run the game, it is probably not going to happen overnight.”
Selection and injuries
As expected this game has come too soon for the hamstrung Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson, and so Cian Healy, Andrew Porter, James Ryan, CJ Stander and Chris Farrell come into the team, with John Ryan and Fergus McFadden restored to the bench.
Thus whereas Ireland have lost three Lions since their last game, Wales have been able to restore three. Even so, the squads are almost identical in terms of cumulative Tests (Ireland 787, Wales 795) and not dissimilar in average age (Ireland 27 years, 344 days, Wales 27 years, 130 days).
Given the high stakes and the quality on display, Schmidt agreed it should be one of the matches of the tournament.
“I think each weekend there has been a really big game. People suspected that Wales-Scotland would be an incredibly close game and a great start to the tournament. I think our game in France certainly kept people entertained until the 82nd minute. It certainly kept me entertained and very close to a defibrillator right until the very finish; the Wales-England arm wrestle where there was so little between those teams last week, and I think this weekend you’ve got three games that I’m incredibly interested in.
“But really the interest ramps up hugely for us because in the tournament like this it’s all about what we’re doing, and how we go, and what we can achieve. I’m pretty sure that the crowd will be vocal and will make a difference, and we’d probably encourage them to make as much of a difference as they possibly can to get behind the team because there are going to be tough moments and we’re going to have to really roll our sleeves up to keep them out at times, to chase them down with the athletes they have, and the fluidity they’ve been playing with.”
IRELAND (v Wales, Aviva Stadium, Saturday, 2.15pm): R Kearney (Leinster); K Earls (Munster), C Farrell (Munster), B Aki (Connacht), J Stockdale (Ulster); J Sexton (Leinster), C Murray (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster, c), A Porter (Leinster), D Toner (Leinster), James Ryan (Leinster), P O’Mahony (Munster), D Leavy (Leinster), C J Stander (Munster). Replacements: S Cronin (Leinster), J McGrath (Leinster), John Ryan (Munster), Q Roux (Connacht), J Conan (Leinster), K Marmion (Connacht), J Carbery (Leinster), F McFadden (Leinster).