Liam Toland: Player rotation crucial to canny Joe Schmidt strategy
Managing teams in big games against opposition like the All Blacks is key to success
Ireland’s Rob Kearney is tackled by Aaron Smith of New Zealand in Soldier Field: “Not only was his performance sublime, his leadership was phenomenal.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
When is the best player no longer the best player? That is to say, how long into a given match will the player on the bench become better than the starting player? For Jordi Murphy it was 26 minutes, for Rory Best it was 71 minutes and for Conor Murray it was, well, not at all.
Why is this relevant? For the first time in our long, long history, we face an entirely new challenge. We play New Zealand two weeks after beating them. So selection last Saturday will vary from Saturday week even with the same opposition. Why?
Well, because the circumstances have entirely changed and what was fit for purpose in Chicago may not be so on Saturday week. I will examine this change in greater detail next Friday but suffice to say that what worked in Chicago will not guarantee a similar outcome in the Aviva.
The level of corporate knowledge displayed by Ireland, combined with the players’ execution of same, will not guarantee success because the All Blacks, although vulnerable in areas, will be nowhere near as vulnerable in Dublin and certainly not in their sloppiness out of hand, their breakdown and their line-outs.
Master planJoe Schmidt
The first part of this is his squad selection for the encounter against Canada. He has rested his entire starting team from Chicago. He eve has the luxury of extending the corporate knowledge of his master plan to a further six uncapped players who in time will feed the animal that is a quality squad of more than 30 players. What a prospect that is.
So, the big question for me as the days fly by till the rematch is not the team tactics but the starting 15 players, the eight bench players and the forward/back bench split.
Why is this so crucial? To examine such a question we must make assumptions, such as the starting player is in fact better in the first place and is at least as fit (and fit for purpose; to be discussed later). However, to assume that the starting player is better to begin with can be a stretch in understanding.
For instance, many would have questioned Rob Kearney’s form coming into Chicago but not only was his performance sublime, his leadership especially when Johnny Sexton exited was phenomenal.
I don’t know if it was a conscious act on his part but he bullied himself into the trenches in the closing quarter when his team and certainly when Joey Carbery needed him most.
Therein lies the value of a management team who understand the minutiae of performance. Schmidt noted to Kearney before kick-off how he wanted, required or expected a big game. “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” Who cares what Schmidt said because what he got was exactly what he expected.
I bemoaned the non-selection of Peter O’Mahony and Seán O’Brien for a role off the bench in Chicago. The margins are fine, very fine, and as brilliant as they are Schmidt left them behind and brought Kearney. But having locked into his 23-man squad he utilised them to maintain momentum and mental and physical application in the knowledge that the All Blacks would get their time.
The performance I most enjoyed in Chicago was from the props, particularly the starting pair. Jack McGrath was immense but in Tadhg Furlong Ireland have an extremely special player. With only eight caps before Chicago, he contributed in everything.
The obvious bench rotation is the front row where international norms dictate that the props are rotated on the hour mark. This is a farce in understanding, as automatic rotation ignores the subtleties of what’s going on.
I wonder from afar what the decision-making process is around such key decisions. Does Mervyn Murphy have a bank of stats making the decisions (heart rate, metres covered, minutes played, tackles made, choke tackles made, etc) or does he simply support Greg Feek and Simon Easterby’s view on substitution?
Either way, getting it right resulted in the seven-man chase down on Julian Savea, the subsequent powerful scrum tying in the All Black back row for Robbie Henshaw to score on 75:30: championship minutes and a historic win.
The Maori All Blacks are in Thomond Park with yet more emotion to flow. Then the Aviva will seem almost irrelevant as Canada will simply fail to generate similar emotions.
That said, taking into account the 23-man squad required for New Zealand, the Canada game is immensely important to what is an outrageous concept: back-to-back wins over the All Blacks where getting the bench split (six to two, I suggest) and timings will be even more crucial next week than ever before.