Gordon D’Arcy: Expect the unexpected from Ireland
Expect something new from Ireland and Joe Schmidt, something to ignite Ireland’s Six Nations
Conor Murray’s ability to dart through the smallest gap is not what France are expecting from Murray or Ireland at this moment. Photograph: Inpho
Midway juncture in the Six Nations and Ireland need to deliver against France. Otherwise Cardiff and England’s visit to Dublin will disappoint as we rely on the ‘English factor’ for the final match.
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest Ireland will hit their straps on Saturday. Johnny Sexton’s return, if it happens, will be an obvious boon. Also, the backrow trio have shown enough in their individual displays to expect an outstanding collective showing.
Like all teams, Ireland look very pedestrian when denied momentum at key breakdowns. But slow the All Blacks possession and they torpedo Julian Savea over the gain line. Same for England with any number of their humongous men (including Ben Te’o).
Murray is so important to everything Ireland seek to do that maybe he can use this game to refocus on what he loves, attacking with the ball in hand, letting others take on more responsibility
France? They can catapult Picamoles or a Fijian winger at the defensive line and are rediscovering the traditional ability to offload to the supporting runner.
Robbie Henshaw has been doing something similar all this season but Iain Henderson and Sean O’Brien are not making the crucial yardage (it’s almost unfair that we judge them by their own high standards), not yet anyway, in this Six Nations. No reason why this won’t change on Saturday. Seanie has enough minutes banked now, and despite making couple of bursts in Murrayfield, he has been snagged by tackles with his trailing leg tending to be held long enough for the second man to deny an all out charge.
Also, Conor Murray has yet to repeat the complete performance we saw in Chicago.
This might be coming. He is so important to everything Ireland seek to do that maybe he can use this game to refocus on what he loves, attacking with the ball in hand, letting others take on more responsibility, like the kicking via Johnny, Zebo, Kearney or Jackson.
He will benefit enormously from Sexton’s return.
Murray is arguably the best scrumhalf in the world right now, certainly he was in November, so his fitness and form is crucial to Ireland beating France.
What Murray has done for so long, just not in his last two matches, can be used to exploit slow moving French forwards. His ability to dart through the smallest gap created by tardy defending is not what France are expecting from Murray or Ireland at this moment.
Show them the Irish playbook, shape up a predictable way, then do something different.
Murray can do almost everything required from the modern half back and maybe this is a chance to re-establish why he is so good.
Kieran Marmion also has a fantastic eye for a break. If he features at all I see Schmidt empowering him to go out and do what he does best - fresh legs to attack a defence already drained by a rejuvenated Murray.
One of the many benefits Joe brings is his ability to inspire players, especially the untested, to make them better. Asking Marmion to box kick like Murray or get to every ruck could place an unbearable burden on his shoulders.
Marmion could be tactically deployed and allowed to do what he does best; sniping puts the onus on others to maintain the momentum he creates. That means a winger will need to step in to get the ball away, or whoever arrives after the possession is secured, be it Tadhg Furlong, Jack McGrath, whoever. They are all comfortable throwing off the ground.
That’s just one example of Joe’s Ireland preparing for any scenario, of turning what seems a glaring weakness caused by losing our most important player, into an attacking weapon in the final 20 minutes when we must keep playing with tempo.
That’s how Schmidt would see it; don’t ask him to play like Conor Murray, play like the scrumhalf who helped Connacht win the Pro 12 title.
And anyway, the best place to hurt any defence is to funnel through the hole created. Both our scrumhalves are experts at this. France will probably concede a penalty just to stop the bleeding.
Attack them where they are sluggish. I remember hearing that Carlos Spencer had a trigger word to yell at Justin Marshall whenever he saw a front rower in his path. The call would mean Marshall zipped the ball in front of Spencer’s chest.
Scotland outhalf Finn Russell did exactly that when he saw Uini Atonio lumbering to his feet in Paris. Russell zipped past the tighthead and a penalty advantage came from the next contact. A phase later Stuart Hogg was gliding over.
There is a misconception out there about Schmidt being an hard taskmaster. There is no fear of the man himself – Joe is an affable guy, good company – but the worry for players comes from failing to hit the markers he demands. Because Schmidt will find someone who can.
That motivates the group. It certainly did when I was there. It focuses the individual mind to achieve excellence in a collective performance. Even a superstar who refuses to correct his defensive positioning or entry into rucks will not survive long in a Schmidt team.
There are plenty of them in this French squad.
Craig Gilroy looked really impressive running in three tries against Italy. Afterwards, Joe described his performance as a mixed bag. That will make Gilroy a better international winger because instead of basking in what he did well he must look to improve his positioning in defence. The contrarian will always say isn’t that his job? Yes it is, but the modern winger needs to score tries in his sleep and be a jack of all trades elsewhere.
Scoring tries, while obviously important, is usually the end product of other players graft. For Ireland under Schmidt, the focus is on all round value to the team. That is a key message.
The really hard work is done so I imagine from afar – despite being less than two seasons out of the game it already feels like some distance – that Schmidt will have challenged his players to pull all the pieces together against France.
The best game plans are based primarily on deception.
Because France, for all the signs of progress or a return to traditional values, will seek to beat Ireland up. An attritional approach is how they know they can win in Dublin, if the flair they so desperately seek ignites, then great.
The direct approach has been the French blueprint in every game against Schmidt’s Ireland. Granted, Noves was not always the coach. This aggression must be met, for the large part, yet the trick is to know precisely when to avoid it.
How to strike a balance? This is where the coach shows his worth, proves he can outfox a bigger, more powerful, albeit sluggish team.
Put France on the back foot, avoid an all out, direct conflict and play to maximise our resources.
What else will France do? For starters, they will counter attack at every opportunity. We saw how dangerous they can be in Twickenham.
In the toughest moments of Schmidt’s time in charge, Ireland have been exposed but what has made them so successful has been their ability to bounce back from adversity, accuracy in the coaching and his ability to catch the opposition off guard.
The Ireland playbook has a myriad of alternatives. We have been playing a lot of set up rugby this campaign; hitting the middle of the field and working possession off this.
Noves has seen this so the simpler options are gone. For the first time a French coach has the benefit of keeping his players in camp during the gap week so they will be prepared for how Ireland attacked in Edinburgh and Rome. So the obvious option will be harder to execute. Expect something new, something to spark Ireland’s Six Nations.
Keane the right man to take Connacht, and Aki, forward
Rugby roots have taken hold in Connacht. Pat Lam compiled a quality squad, using whatever means available, and delivered a Pro12 title before convincing vital players into signing new contracts, which should make the handover to Kieran Keane this summer the smoothest in the province’s history. There is never a better time for a coach to move on than after success, so Keane for Lam may be what the province needs to ensure sustainability. The 63-year-old Kiwi seems like an astute appointment.
Bundee Aki has been given free rein on the field under Lam, which has worked wonders. Aki has been the cornerstone of so much positivity in Connacht’s play, be it an inspirational break or jarring hit in midfield. Keane would know all about him because he knows all about the underage talent in New Zealand over the past 20 years. He certainly coached against him so he’ll have an idea how to get the best out of him and the rest of them. I see no reason why, with a bit more direction from a no nonsense taskmaster like Keane, who understands twentysomething Kiwi players, that Aki cannot become an even better player.
This could be as harmonious a transition as the Cheika-Schmidt situation in Leinster, building on a strong foundation and polishing an already strong culture with a new voice.