Joe Schmidt closing gaps to prevent repeat of Cardiff nightmare

Joe Schmidt closing gaps to prevent repeat of Cardiff nightmare
Head coach Joe Schmidt and kicking coach Richie Murphy take time out from the serious business at Aviva Stadium. Picture: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Joe Schmidt insists this evening’s match with Argentina has nothing to do with revenge, but he does not deny that the 2015 World Cup quarter-final defeat has informed the Ireland boss’s approach to this Guinness Series finale, writes Simon Lewis.

No grudges, then, but plenty of lessons to be taken from that Irish nightmare in Cardiff 25 months ago, when Schmidt’s injury-hit, inexperienced side gifted the Pumas a 17-point start in the opening 12 minutes, reeled them back into a three-point game at 23-20 with 28 minutes remaining and then wilted all over again to go down 43-20.

Such is Schmidt’s voracious rugby memory that he can recall it all in forensic detail, and has this week used those key moments to forearm his current crop so as not to repeat the same mistakes when the Pumas come calling to the Aviva Stadium for a first November Test since 2012.

In Cardiff, it was the collisions, he argued, that had resulted in that heavy World Cup defeat.

“That was in response to people saying that it was the width they played with,” Schmidt said this week. “If you look at the first part of that match, you only have to look at a couple of minutes in, when we’ve actually got a little bit of an overlap and Iain Henderson gets turned over by Agustin Creevy on the ground.

“Guys like Pablo Matera were immense in winning those collisions. In the lead-up to their first try, he breaks a tackle after [Joaquin] Tuculet breaks a tackle, they spin it wide, but the damage is done on the way to getting it wide and I think if the Argentinians get wide ball on the front-foot because they’ve won collisions, then I think that makes us vulnerable.

“So, it’s always about being competitive in those collisions. Defensively and offensively.”

That particularly applies to an inexperienced midfield and wing division, with just five caps spread among those four players, debutant Adam Byrne, thrice-capped Jacob Stockdale and centres Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell, with one Ireland appearance apiece. For this is a very different Ireland side to the one that was patched together in Cardiff two years ago in the absence of so many leaders.

Johnny Sexton, Sean O’Brien, and Peter O’Mahony have made it to the start line this time around to join five survivors from the starting XV, but this still provides Schmidt with the sort of acid test his squad failed back then.

The management’s modus operandi since that night has been to ensure it never happens again but Schmidt acknowledges few teams can afford to sustain such losses, however diligently you appear to have improved your coping mechanisms.

“You look at teams right now that are missing key players and they’re more vulnerable, without a doubt. You look at the All Blacks last week. Now the Scots were superb and you take nothing away from them but if you had Owen Franks, Joe Moody, Brodie Retallick, those sorts of players — does it give the All Blacks more solidity up front? I think it definitely does.

“Some of the guys in the backline, you know, I think this week against Wales they’ll miss Rieko Ioane. Are they missing Ben Smith? Immensely. He’s a huge leader for them, a vice-captain for them. That sort of leadership, no matter how hard you try, you never quite.... world class is world class, and there just aren’t that many of them around.

“So all you can do is try to work as hard as you can so that the gap between your world-class players and the player beneath them, and the player beneath that, and dare I say, the player beneath that, you make that as congested as it can be.

“I don’t think there’s any team in the world that isn’t a little bit vulnerable without their very top players. So when you lose a talisman like Paul O’Connell, or you lose someone like Sean O’Brien, bristling away there, not prepared to lose collisions; when you lose your GPS in Johnny, particularly with the tight turnaround that Ian Madigan had of 20 minutes, really, with the team. Those colliding variables, and that’s not even counting Pete (O’Mahony) and Jared Payne, can make anyone vulnerable on the day.”

Argentina will certainly try to expose what they perceive as the current weak links, the inexperienced outside backs between veterans Rob Kearney and Sexton as well as the rookie lock James Ryan, surrounded as the 21-year-old is by a wealth of experience in Ireland’s forward pack.

That’s just the way Schmidt wants it. Byrne, Stockdale, Aki, and Ryan are there by design, to continue their rugby development at the highest level.

“A good day in the office has to be some good performances from some individuals who we’ve given an opportunity to in the context that we want to be cohesive as a team. So within the team, they deliver the sort of performance that is conducive to the team doing well and I think if we can do that, then we’re going to be really competitive.

“You can never say that you’ll get a result or you want to get a result. I know that the players will be rolling their sleeves up and working really hard to get the result but the way that you do that is through individuals picking up their performance and combining it well enough that we’re hard to break down defensively and we threaten them across the pitch on attack.”

This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.

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