Joe Schmidt outlines challenges facing Ireland’s elite playing group

Coach stresses need to grow from world-class hub into a wider group really competent in playing in Test arena

Joe Schmidt: says players must understand team system and be able to stay within it. Photograph:  David Rogers/Getty Images

Joe Schmidt: says players must understand team system and be able to stay within it. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images


Watch it over and over again and still it finishes with Aaron Cruden’s conversion giving New Zealand the perfect year.

It’s the particulars that keep drawing Joe Schmidt back. Not that Jack McGrath going off his feet for a penalty 60 metres from the Ireland try-line in injury time needs to be highlighted. Sam Whitelock slowed up the ball two rucks beforehand and again at the same ruck that McGrath was punished. It was the “picture” that referee Nigel Owens saw that mattered.

“I thought Nigel did a good job and in the end it was our responsibility to defend from 60 metres out and be good enough to do it.”

And so, as Ireland have learnt so many times, all the pieces matter. “And that’s something that we’ll talk about at camp, which will be probably one field session over Christmas.”

All the changes Schmidt made in November mattered too. He’s on record saying the primary aim was to beat New Zealand, so arguably the Australia performance suffered, but the secondary goal of exposing his favourite young players to Test rugby was achieved. So, say, God forbid, Cian Healy becomes one of the injured “20 per cent” before or during the Six Nations, McGrath will be ready.

Schmidt came with statistical gifts to yesterday’s announcement of the returning Ulster Bank League awards – 29 Irish men were capped in November, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen used 40 in 14 games in 2013. “We might not be able to get to 40, but we’ve got to be able to grow from a world-class hub into a wider group that are really competent in playing in the international arena.”

The question knowledgeable rugby people in this country have been asking since 2009 lingers. How much of the one-off 79 minute excellence can be replicated consistently come the Six Nations?

“The more the better to be honest because a heck of a lot of it was really good stuff. There was some great accuracy at the breakdown, to keep McCaw out of the way . . .

“There was some good continuity and good shape attacking-wise, I thought we defended really well, even the first try that Savea gets, Tommy Bowe has worked so hard, he’s on the opposite wing making a tackle and then we almost get back and the ball does bounce pretty well for Julian Savea.”

What he also sees is three challenges facing Ireland’s elite playing group. Firstly, European rugby must be of immense value as another All Black encounter is not slated before the 2015 World Cup. Secondly, systematic errors must be erased by, thirdly, the Seán O’Brien mantra about the younger players quickening their maturity in the Test match arena.

“You’ve got to understand the system and be able to stay in the system and part of that is attitude, in that you’re able to trust the guys either side of you, that you don’t get too tight thinking he might not make the tackle and then a wide pass gets you beaten and they get a bit of space and then you’re chasing your tail. Or you don’t quite trust the guy on the outside to make the tackles and start to drop under him, and then suddenly they get this space back in here with a late switch off the sideline, that sort of thing.

“To stay in that defensive system and to be accurate in your tackle entry and delivery, a lot of that is technical stuff that I think you need to maintain a consistent attitude of a work ethic and a trust throughout your training and throughout your playing from match to match and that’s our challenge for the Six Nations.”

The levels of belligerence that can be attained are no longer a concern. Back to work.