Joe Schmidt has come out swinging against critics of Ireland’s attack gameplan by rounding on Wales rival Warren Gatland’s jibes of more than two years ago.
Schmidt and Gatland are set to lock horns again tomorrow, when Ireland’s NatWest 6 Nations title bid faces its toughest test yet against the Welsh at the Aviva Stadium.
The home side’s difficulties against their Celtic cousins, having not won a competitive fixture against them since the 2014 championship, have prompted questions about Ireland’s perceived predictability and lack of width.
The Irish head coach believes the perception stems from comments made by his fellow New Zealander after a 16-10 World Cup warm-up loss in Dublin in August 2015 that saw Wales gain revenge for a Cardiff defeat three weeks previously.
“I don’t think Ireland play a lot of rugby, but they’ve been incredibly successful,” said Gatland post-match of the then back-to-back Six Nations champions. “I thought they were really narrow at times and a lot of the players are quite narrow.
“When they play that game effectively, when they use their one-off runners effectively and get some success from cross-kicks, that’s what they’re good at doing.”
The Wales boss added: “We didn’t feel like we were troubled at all in the wide channels. They got some turnover stuff and some kick returns and stuff, which put us under pressure, but when they played with ball in hand, we didn’t feel like we were under a huge amount of pressure.”
Schmidt yesterday named an injury-hit matchday squad, having seen British & Irish Lions duo Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson lose their races to pass fit after hamstring strains against Italy two weeks ago.
Inexperienced Leinster forwards Andrew Porter and James Ryan fill the respective vacancies, while the loss of Robbie Henshaw at outside centre gives a chance for Munster’s Chris Farrell to win just his third cap in a midfield partnership with Bundee Aki, who has just four Test appearances to his name.
During Schmidt’s team announcement press conference, he was asked if Ireland’s attack had evolved since last season’s 21-9 defeat in Cardiff, when Ireland had been kept tryless. The Ireland head coach described the opportunities his players had created without reward in that game, but when asked by a broadcast reporter whether that meant no change was needed, Schmidt said: “What can you change? It’s a game of rugby. Sometimes we kick, sometimes we run, sometimes we go wide, sometimes we go through the middle.
“I think if anyone tried to analyse what we do, there is a lot of variety in what we do, and I think that the times that we’ve not quite managed to get the result against Wales, we’ve probably had as much as the game as they have, and we haven’t quite been able to put the game away.”
He added: “Do we play slightly differently from two years ago? I think anyone who does analysis will say ‘yes we do’, there are some changes in what we do, and I’m obviously not going to explain them, that’s your challenge, I guess.”
Asked later whether such questions annoyed or frustrated him when his side was creating the opportunities he suggested, Schmidt replied: “I am not even saying there is all this opportunity... I’m just saying... sometimes it is frustrating, because one opposition coach has tried to create that story and people have picked it up without doing their own analysis.
“I think there is a degree of frustration from our players. I am not sure why he would get more credence than [Argentina head coach] Daniel Hourcade who was really impressed or [South Africa’s former boss] Allister Coetzee who was really impressed,” said Schmidt.
“It is not generally one summary way that you play, if the forecast is a bit up and down for Saturday.
“Yes, we didn’t score a try in Paris [against France three weeks ago], but we found a way and in a Test match that’s what you have to do, sometimes. Did we control most of that game?
“I think we did. Apart from one moment in the 72nd minute that Teddy Thomas gets some space up the touchline and suddenly then you are chasing the game.
“But we worked hard enough and you even look at that five minutes of phases, there was kicks that got re-gathered, there was forwards carrying, there was backs carrying, there was a little bit of width, another kick that got re-gathered.
"There was a lot of movement to get to where we needed to be, so I just think that the players are going to get out there, they are going to enjoy the opportunity to try to put their mark on the game, and they are going to collectively try to destabilise the Welsh.”
Getting the likes of Porter, 22, James Ryan, 21, and Farrell, 24, ready for that challenge will be the real test for Schmidt, who is confident the more experienced players he has packed in around his rookies can steer the new boys through.
“You want to have some experience around inexperienced players, because when you are out there, and things are happening as fast as they tend to in a Test match, you can get spooked.
“You can get put off balance, and you can get uncomfortable,” Schmidt said.
“We want to keep that assurance that some of these young guys are going to stay in the game, that they are going to have the confidence alongside them.
“Rory Best is going to grab Andrew Porter for the first scrum and make sure Andrew is ready to go.
“Dev [Toner] is going to get an arm around James Ryan and make sure that he’s ready to go.
“It is a balance, but you’ve got to have confidence in those inexperienced players stepping up and keeping their confidence, hopefully, based on their involvements in the game, not just the players playing around them in the game.”
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