The things Ireland need to prove in this autumn series
1. Emergence of a new leadership group
Less than two years out from the 2015 World Cup, the time has come for a new generation to take ownership of this Irish side. For the last number of years, three powerfully strong characters in Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara were the totems and everyone else was happy to play a support role. With O’Connell the only one of that trio with aspirations of appearing in the 2015 tournament, the time has come for new generals to emerge.
Already this summer a core of first time Lions tourists made their mark in Australia with Sean O’Brien, Jonny Sexton, Cian Healy, Rory Best, Conor Murray and Simon Zebo donning the famous red jersey. Couple them with 2009 tourists Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls, all of whom should still be available for selection when the next global event comes around, and you have a very strong and forceful group capable of setting new standards in the quest to drive Ireland forward.
In addition, Heaslip and Peter O’Mahony have experience of captaining the side and, while O’Connell is the perfect choice to lead Ireland into the next tournament, others must emerge from the shadow of the Munster colossus to smoothen that journey.
Chief amongst those are Sexton and O’Brien. Sexton has a lot on his plate at present but his performance for the Lions in the deciding third test in Sydney offered conclusive evidence he doesn’t need a captain’s armband to direct Ireland’s future. Time has come to lift the burden of responsibility off O’Driscoll and O’Connell’s decorated shoulders. Schmidt needs to extract more from this pivotal group of experienced Lions who need to step up and shape the direction of this team. Their time has come.
2. An identifiable style of play
Probably the single biggest obstacle to Ireland’s attacking play in recent times was a lack of clarity in what they were trying to achieve. It forced Brian O’Driscoll to declare publicly in the wake of the 60-0 drubbing from New Zealand that it needed to be addressed.
Confusion reigned in the wake of Alan Gaffney’s departure from the Irish coaching ticket with responsibility for the team’s attacking strategy shared between Less Kiss, Declan Kidney and Mark Tainton. Ireland’s structure and organisation in attack suffered as a consequence. O’Driscoll wanted clear lines of responsibility to be defined.
That lack of clarity would have registered with Schmidt at the time. He has deliberately kept his initial coaching ticket small and will assume a more hands-on coaching responsibility himself. Attack is his forte and the hope is Ireland will benefit as a result.
It does pose challenges for the new man as he learns to cope with the multi-faceted role that the head coach of an international side has become.
The hallmark of Leinster under Joe Schmidt was an ability to absorb pressure and trust in their defence when they didn’t have the ball. In possession their game management was outstanding as was their ability to create space. Their conversion rate from line breaks to tries was spectacular. The challenge now is to reproduce that clarity in attack in the Irish set up. In the Leinster set up, every player had a clear understanding of his role, whether acting as a decoy runner to hold a defender or as the person required to run the support line for the off load.
Repetition in training was a key element in achieving this but the international coach doesn’t have the unlimited access to players that his provincial colleague has in order to fine tune what he wants. Schmidt must learn to cope with that challenge.
3. Consistency of performance
An inability to put meaningful back-to-back performances has haunted this Irish squad over the last few seasons. Think back to the World Cup two years ago when Ireland were outstanding in victory over Australia in Auckland but failed to turn up for the quarter-final against Wales two weeks later.
Just look at our last two outings against New Zealand when victory was on the cards only for a very questionable refereeing decision in the 22-19 defeat in Christchurch before imploding in that 60-0 annihilation in Hamilton seven days later. Consider the contrast in performance from one half to the other in the Six Nations opener against Wales last season. Ireland blitzed the Welsh in the opening 43 minutes, scorching into a 30-3 lead yet were left hanging on for dear life as Wales registered 19 unanswered points over the remaining 37 minutes.
The one thing Joe Schmidt must demand from his squad and actively target over the next three weeks is an incremental improvement in performance throughout the series. While that may not be sufficient to win all three tests, it will build confidence and belief going into the six nations.
One wondered how Graham Henry’s successor Steve Hansen would cope with the fact that New Zealand had just scaled Everest, finally delivering a World Cup after 24 years of pain and anguish in 2011. How was he going to energise his squad after what they had achieved? Simple really. He challenged his players to improve performance’s by 15% game on game in order to set new standards. Incredibly they have achieved that.
I believe there is a similar scope for improvement within this talented group of Irish players but they must openly challenge themselves to be better every time they take to the field.
Too often in recent times, they became smug in the comfort blanket of a recent good performance and failed to back it up with any degree of consistency, most noticeably at the World Cup two years ago.
Subconsciously their heads drifted to a potential first ever semi-final against an eminently beatable French side before they had addressed the immediate challenge, a quarter-final against Wales. Their performance levels suffered. In many respects, this mental shortcoming is the biggest issue facing the new management team.
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