Players implemented Joe Schmidt’s simple game plan with real efficiency
Vaunted South Africans made far more mistakes than Ireland did and paid the price
Ireland line up for the South Africa clash. “The more belief players have in the coach, his game plan and the chances of it succeeding, the more united they will be.” Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Players want to play. It doesn’t matter what the sport is, what the team is, who the coach is – players want to play. That’s what drives them, that’s what focuses them, that’s what affects their mood. In the majority of cases, they are different people when they are in the team to when they are out of it.
And yet, talking to one of the Ireland squad players over the weekend, I was very struck by the fact that even though he didn’t get the game time he wanted against South Africa, he was just buzzing at the two weeks of work they had put in.
He was talking about how interesting he had found it. He wasn’t going away feeling sorry for himself, he was excited to be involved and mad to get back into camp this week and try to win his place in the team.
Joe Schmidt has been lauded from all sides after Saturday’s win over the Springboks, so much so that I think some of the contributions of the players have been overlooked a bit. We should be careful about going overboard and making the Irish team all about one man.
Listening to some of the coverage over the weekend, it felt a little like we just went from the Brian O’Driscoll era to the Joe Schmidt era. This Irish team is more than that just their coach.
Instead, any player you talk to says that he does the two things every player wants – he gives them detailed information and tells them what they are expected to do. That sounds pretty basic but you’d be surprised how many coaches fall short. Either the information is too general or his expectations aren’t specific enough. People end up feeling like they’re not being given enough to do or that they’re not an essential part of the game plan.
Not all players are the same. But at the highest level, they all want to be challenged. They want a situation where they are given specific targets to hit. If you don’t do what he needs, he’ll turn to somebody else.
What I found most intriguing about the game was something Jonny Sexton said in his interview afterwards.
He mentioned the fact that so many guys were out injured but that it didn’t matter because the other guys who stepped in knew the system and knew their role within it.
From that, Schmidt’s attitude is clear. The excuse of players not being available just doesn’t come into it with him. His thinking is that the job he has come to do is prepare players to fit into his way of thinking.
I can’t remember another Ireland coach who would have gone into a game with so many players already missing and still left a fit Gordon D’Arcy out, purely on the basis that he hadn’t been able to train the previous week. But Schmidt wanted to work with his players, give them their jobs, trust them to carry it through to matchday.
I worried beforehand what we were going to be like with half a team missing. I was worried about depth because it’s been a problem for Ireland in the past. But Schmidt doesn’t think like that. His attitude is take what you have, come up with a gameplan, drill the players on it and execute. And it worked.
If you sit down and go through that game again, the one thing that stands out is that nothing was overly complicated. Ireland didn’t reinvent the wheel. They did the simple things really well and the more you do that, the more efficient you are.
It’s like they had a checklist of things. Efficiency at the breakdown. Lines of running. Cohesive defence. Work-rate. Support play. I was really struck by the fact that if you go through each player’s performance, a huge number of them were up on the 90s in terms of percentage of those simple things that they did right. You will always have one or two guys standing out but the consistency of performance was massive right through the team.
Now, it has to be said that they were helped by a South African team that put in a really poor performance. When was the last time you saw a Southern Hemisphere team have 19 turnovers in a game? They had 19, Ireland had 8.
Schmidt did a great coaching job in coming up with the plan and the players were brilliant in execution but any team that loses the turnover battle 19-8 is going to struggle to win a game.
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If South Africa had done the simple things as well as Ireland did, then you’d imagine their scrum and lineout probably would have won the game for them. But Ireland’s efficiency in the fundamentals of the game turned the match their way.
This is not a new approach either. Go back and check the stats from Ireland’s Six Nations win and two stand out. We had the fewest turnovers conceded and the fewest penalties given away. That is the stuff that wins close matches.
In many ways, it’s a fairly simplistic approach to the game. It can be quite limiting. I saw a stat that said that Ireland had no offloads in the whole game, which is unbelievable when you consider what we know some of these guys are capable of with their provinces. When we get to the World Cup, that sort of game would limit us a little.
You need to have more than that in your locker. You’ve got to be flexible for those times when a game changes up and you might need more invention. There would be a slight worry that if the team becomes too pre-programmed that they might get out of the habit of taking a game on themselves and looking to change it if something goes wrong.
It would have been interesting to see how that game panned out on Saturday if South Africa had got the next score after Marcell Coetzee’s try made it 13-10. At that stage, South Africa looked like they were building up a head of steam. If they’d scored another try or if they hadn’t had Adriaan Strauss sin-binned soon after, it would have been a real challenge for Ireland to keep their heads and keep doing the things that had got them into a winning position in the first place.
Schmidt will obviously look to develop the gameplan as time goes by. This one makes talented players incredibly efficient. The idea is to make that the standard and build from there. Make it become completely natural so that if I start a game with a few bit hits and clear out the first three rucks really well, I’m not there thinking, ‘Well I’ve done plenty here, everybody saw that so I can ease off here and know that people will remember that’.
I sometimes wonder what I would be like in that sort of environment. I was the sort of player whose concentration could wander at times. I could do a couple of great things early in a match but there was sometimes a chance that I’d go a spell without being involved.
But the standard needs to be the standard, right throughout the game. And if the environment is right, you won’t let that standard drop. If you know the coaching staff are going to remember the ruck you didn’t clear out over and above the three you did, you won’t get lazy and or complacent.
Most teams are driven by the belief of the players. If they start to doubt the coaches, it will fester and little splits will start to appear in the group. But the opposite of that is true as well. The more belief players have in the coach, his gameplan and the chances of it succeeding, the more united they will be.
And the players responded. For all the plaudits we send Joe Schmidt’s way, this was their win as well. The first of many, hopefully.