DONAL LENIHAN: Joe Schmidt shows brain can defy brawn

Joe Schmidt

Sunday’s magnificent win over England ensures Ireland will now have two bites at retaining their Six Nations championship title won in dramatic circumstances in Paris last year. 

It also guarantees we will still be playing for honours on the final day of the Championship in Murrayfield, regardless of what happens against Wales in Cardiff on Saturday week. 

Having won the title on points differential last March, you can be sure Joe Schmidt’s squad will want to go one step further this time and secure a Grand Slam.

With every other side in the tournament having experienced at least one defeat, Ireland chase that particular milestone on their own.

A French win in Paris last weekend would have suited Ireland’s cause nicely. Winning at the Stade de France is always a significant achievement regardless of the ailing fortunes of the French national side and Wales will be a better and more confident side for the experience.

They looked down and out after allowing England claw their way back from the concession of 10 early points on the opening night of tournament action at the Millennium Stadium but have displayed great resilience in negotiating two difficult away assignments against Scotland and France.

That will stand to them and having plotted the downfall of England last weekend, Schmidt will know that a different set of challenges awaits in Cardiff.

The most amazing thing about Sunday’s convincing win over the English was the way Ireland almost made it look easy, scampering into a 19-3 lead after 54 minutes.

Even the bookies had difficulty separating the sides in advance, and when you consider the victor was going to be reinstalled as the third ranked side in the world, the manner of Ireland’s win was highly impressive.

Once again they were on the retreat in the closing stages with their line under constant siege but, given key players like Johnny Sexton, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip were watching from the stand, it was another significant step for the entire squad.

Ireland have become a very difficult side to beat. Teams know in advance just how crucial their kicking game is to the overall effectiveness of the side but still struggle to deal with it.

England prepared assiduously for that particular challenge but, in the opening five minutes alone, both George Ford and Anthony Watson were found wanting as the ravenous Irish chasers devoured the dropping bombs.

Sexton was especially cruel in that he continually sought out Ford, the smallest player on the field.

England tried to hide by positioning him in the outside channel from set plays but Sexton was tracking him all the way through and rained the garryowens on him. No matter where he stood, Sexton’s radar found Ford.

The thought process was to heap as much physical pressure on a key player starting in just his fifth international.

Ford emerged from this test with a lot of credit and will have learned hugely from the experience before he returns for the Champions Cup quarter-final to face Leinster in Bath colours.

He has great balance, lovely hands and a very effective kicking game. Sexton appreciated his importance to the visitors and set out to show the young pretender who was boss. No contest there.

The challenge facing Schmidt is that, for all the strides this squad has made and the manner with which the likes of key players such as O’Brien, Heaslip, Cian Healy and the retired Brian O’Driscoll have been seamlessly replaced at key times by Tommy O’Donnell, Jordi Murphy, Jack McGrath and Robbie Henshaw, Ireland are vulnerable when Sexton isn’t on the field.

His latest hamstring strain is a concern — Racing Metro must be cracking up as their star man keeps getting injured on national duty — and Ireland will need his assured presence in Cardiff.

Hopefully, Racing won’t force him to play against Grenoble in next weekend’s Top 14 clash but the Ireland management will have no input to that decision.

So where are England after this defeat and what is the significance of the results given that the sides could potentially be meeting again in a World Cup semi-final in October?

The sides are also set to meet in our final World Cup warm up game, also in Twickenham on September 5, and it will be interesting to see how both coaches approach that particular challenge.

There is a lot of things can happen before then, however. Of the two, Stuart Lancaster is the one with more headaches after the weekend and needs to find the right balance between brawn and subtlety.

There was enough in the performances of Ford, Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell to suggest he is not far from having a very potent back line to reap the rewards from what should be a dominant pack.

The return to action of Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury, Geoff Parling, Tom Wood and Alex Corbisiero should help in making that pack even more powerful while he should also bite the bullet and recall Toulon’s Stefan Armitage to offer greater balance to his back row.

The England model is hugely reliant on bullying the opposition into submission up front and, having seen their U20 and Saxons sides use that template to good effect against their Irish counterparts in recent weeks, it’s a ploy that works most of the time.

However, you need more at the top level and that is the problem Lancaster needs to solve before the World Cup.

Thankfully, the Schmidt template shows there are ways for brain to beat brawn. And long may that continue.

This time last season, there was much speculation about what life without O’Driscoll at national level would be like.

The fact Ireland are as competitive as ever is comforting even if the regular brushstrokes of genius he brought to proceedings have been conspicuously absent. Ireland are playing a different type of game to when he was at his prime.

What we can say is the production line has worked as Robbie Henshaw continues his progression and looks more comfortable with every outing at international level. Despite being asked to perform a different role to what he would be used to at inside centre, he continues to blossom.

His partnership with Jared Payne remains a work in progress but it’s getting there. Longer term the potential of pairing a more experienced version of Henshaw with current U20 outside centre, Gary Ringrose, looks really exciting. Anyone in Donnybrook last Friday night saw a masterclass from a young man with limitless potential.

On two separate occasions the Leinster tyro unleashed the type of deft touches O’Driscoll specialised in and in the end the English defence was in a constant state of panic every time Ringrose was in possession.

The 2015 World Cup has probably come a year too soon for him but the prospect of Henshaw and Ringrose teaming up in midfield in the not too distant future offers even more cause for excitement.

As for Cardiff, Irish management have one key issue to ponder as they consider the circumstances and surroundings that would suit our successful kicking strategy better. Millennium Stadium roof — open or closed? At least that decision is exclusively Ireland’s call.


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