No pain, no gain as Schmidt and O’Connell look to next year

Ireland’s coach and captain happy but there are still weaknesses to be worked on

Tommy Bowe, Ian Madigan, Jamie Heaslip, Peter O’Mahony and Robbie Henshaw celebrate Ireland’s 26-23 defeat of Australia in the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Tommy Bowe, Ian Madigan, Jamie Heaslip, Peter O’Mahony and Robbie Henshaw celebrate Ireland’s 26-23 defeat of Australia in the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

As usual, you’d rarely guess from their post-match countenance that Joe Schmidt and Paul O’Connell had just completed a stellar year as Irish coach and captain. They had just beaten Australia to augment a Six Nations title by completing a first November clean sweep since 2006 and thus finish the calendar year as the third best team in the world. Cheer up, lads.

Then again, not only do their similarly exacting, forward-thinking standards help to drive this upward spiral, we have since learned that Schmidt was entitled to a more pained post-match expression than normal. An IRFU statement confirmed that the Irish coach had his appendix removed on Saturday after he had been assessed by match day doctors and then sent to St Vincent’s Hospital

The statement said Schmidt was “recovering well this morning” and added: “Joe would like to thank the doctors and nurses of St Vincent’s Hospital and everyone for their well wishes and kind messages of support.”

Physical intensity

However, being so performance-driven, both Schmidt and O’Connell know that whatever about the results, the performances against South Africa and Australia were some way short of optimum, not least in the relative lack of penetration, creativity and go-forward momentum, to which could be added some flawed decision-making and execution.

“I think there was a lot of errors in them,” said O’Connell, who was particularly disappointed with the line-outs and they way he put pressure on his own hookers. “I don’t think they were amazingly spectacular performances but there were some really good aspects in them. Our defence in both games against two world class teams who had the ball for long periods and we were able to force errors and hold them out.

“That’s very satisfying. The way we were able to address the scrum from South Africa to today and the way Feeky (Greg Feek) was able to address those things in shorts sessions was excellent as well. I think they’re good performances but there is a lot more in us.”

Fear factor

World CupMunster

Second Captains

“I felt fairly good towards the end of the game,” he said, adding wryly: “Probably fear is a big driving factor as well. To be 17-0 up, I think it would have been fairly devastating if we’d lost; that was probably what was driving on a lot of us as well towards the end of the game.”

That Ireland have learned how to win close affairs, which most test matches between frontline teams are nowadays, was underlined a fortnight ago against South Africa and there was also a certain comparison to be drawn with that victory.

Once again Ireland found a way to win a match that at times it didn’t appear they had any right to win. Once again, if not to the same extent, Australia had the better line-out and better scrum until the Irish scrum rallied strongly to withhold a concerted effort by the Wallabies on their own 22 in the last five minutes, even winning a relieving penalty. Mike Ross and Jack McGrath, both on for the full 80, take a bow.

Like the Springboks, the Wallabies also had more possession and territory. But because they have more game-breakers, as well as a more varied attacking game, Australia had more line breaks, beat more defenders, made more offloads and scored three tries to two.

Yet Ireland had backed up their win over South Africa, which was the most satisfying aspect for O’Connell: “It is very exciting; it is tough on the guys who are injured because we have to focus on what we have to do and we have to move on.

“I’d imagine that makes them all the more hungry to get back and get back in as good a condition as they can. I think when you have a lot of quality players out injured and the team moves on – I’ve been there myself when the team moves on and does well – it is very tough and makes you very hungry.

“There is great potential there. Obviously the line-out and breakdown early in the game were poor. Defensively in that middle 20 minutes of that first half we were poor, so there are a number of areas we can improve on. If we can do that, who knows what can happen?”

Too loose

Ireland have become a very well organised, pragmatic and clever team – in the image of their coach – where the collective often adds up to more than the sum of the individual parts. Tellingly, Schmidt also namechecked players who helped to build in the first half of the year.

After winning nine from ten in 2014, Ireland will play a minimum of 13 matches in 2015 – and hopefully 18. Italy are first up in Rome on February 7th, with France and England to come to Dublin before Ireland end the Six Nations on the road in Wales and Scotland.

There are four warm-up matches against Wales (away), Scotland (home), Wales (home) and England (away) before the four World Cup pool games against Canada, Romania, Italy and France.

So, next up then, retaining the Six Nations title, and thus winning back to back championships since 1948 and 1949?

“We’ve just got to survive tonight I think,” Schmidt grimaced through slightly gritted teeth, somewhat prophetically.

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