Joe Schmidt not hiding as Big Brother looms large on horizon

Ireland coach says injecting fresh legs into secondrow was reason for omitting Toner

 Joe Schmidt: “Can we? We have to believe we can. We have got to go out there with that absolute belief.” Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Joe Schmidt: “Can we? We have to believe we can. We have got to go out there with that absolute belief.” Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

Ireland had been installed as one-point favourites for Saturday’s finale against England at the Aviva before last weekend’s penultimate round of Six Nations matches. However, such has been the effect of Ireland’s defeat to Wales, England’s filleting of Scotland and now the loss of Conor Murray, that Ireland are four-point underdogs and ‘drifting’.

Of course, bigger odds than that have been scaled before, and in their final day of the Six Nations at their Carton House base before relocating to Dublin, Joe Schmidt cited a few comparatively extreme examples to underline the point.

“Any team can be beaten on their day. I think we have seen a bit of that lately. Who would have picked Barcelona to turn around that PSG result? Who would have picked Douvan to get beaten yesterday at 4/1 on? Who would have picked us to win in Chicago at 13/1 in a two-horse race? That’s what people love about sport.

“Can we? We have to believe we can. We have got to go out there with that absolute belief that we can and we know that at the same time if we don’t get as much as possible right we know that they will be too good.”

Well though Kieran Marmion played for the last 34 minutes in Cardiff, since making his debut on the summer tour of Argentina in 2014 his only start in his dozen caps was at home to Canada last November. What’s more, his newly promoted understudy Luke McGrath won his only cap as a replacement that day.

By contrast, since being injured for the final two games of the 2012 Six Nations, the 57-times capped Murray has played in 48 of Ireland’s last 55 matches. The exceptions were summer tour games away to the USA, Canada and Argentina, at home to Georgia, two World Cup warm-up games and Canada at home.

What’s more, he started in all but two of those 48 games, including Ireland’s last 24 Six Nations games in a row.

Savvy and presence

Ireland will miss Murray’s savvy and presence, as well as his strong kicking game and tackling, and his eye for the try line (seven in his last 17 Tests). Looking ahead to Munster’s European Cup quarter-final against Toulouse in a fortnight, the player himself is pretty sure his sore left shoulder, which could not take much impact at training on Thursday, will recover in a few days.

Rob Kearney’s knee injury has opened the way for Jared Payne’s return at fullback, with the uncapped Andrew Conway on the bench, but the big surprise was Devin Toner’s demotion to make way for Iain Henderson. The team’s primary ball-winner has been another of Schmidt’s go-to men, actually playing one game more (39) than Murray of Schmidt’s 43 Tests as head coach, and starting 36 of them, including 19 Six Nations games in a row.

Schmidt admitted his decision required “a really good chat with Dev”, adding: “He’s there on the bench and we’ve got some good lineout strength coming off the bench.”

Highlighting Toner’s progress in the seven years he’s coached him at Leinster and with Ireland, Schmidt added: “I do think it’s tough for Dev, but at the same time he’s racked up some massive miles and he’s just a little bit fatigued at the moment and Iain Henderson is fresh. Donnacha Ryan is fresher as well – he missed the first round.”

“It’s attritional,” said Schmidt. “I know people are talking about putting the Six Nations into five weeks. I’m not sure how that would work for teams like us who are really reliant on a little less depth than the likes of England and France.”

Schmidt described England’s depth as “formidable, and across the park it is really hard to see where the weaknesses lie” and said England’s 18-match winning run entitled Eddie Jones to be more outspoken.

“I think everyone’s a little bit different. Personality-wise Eddie and I are different. I think there are some common traits. Eddie works incredibly hard and I know that I do as much as I possibly can. I guess some people just go about their business and are inward-looking with their team, and outward-looking with their opponents, but certainly not as outspoken about it.”

Lack of aggression

 Ireland’s low penalty counts have now been cited as a lack of aggression, to which Schmidt countered: “That would be pretty unfair because our turnover rate is so good.”

Although out of the title picture, there are motivating factors aplenty this Saturday, uppermost amongst them being a second place finish in the table, according to Schmidt.

“In the last four years, we’ve won two and got third in the other one. To stay in the top three is incredibly important to us. We always knew it was going to be an incredibly tough Six Nations and we knew that, A) we had to be really accurate, and B) we’d ideally have everyone available and get that continuity throughout it. We haven’t been as accurate as we’ve needed to be. We haven’t been that far off that benchmark that we’ve set but we don’t have to be that far off. The margins are so fine.”   

Maintaining a top-four world ranking could also help Ireland’s World Cup draw.

“The championship for us is very big and games against England, no matter what they are, are just big anyway. They are the big brother. They are the guy you look over your shoulder at and you are a little bit envious of. You’re always going to try to get one over your big brother. I think that’s a natural personality trait but, at the same time, there’s a little bit of angst and anxiety when the big brother is looking over the fence.”

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