RONAN O'GARA: Edinburgh come next February will be a real sticky affair

France won’t win next year’s Six Nations championship for the very reason Joe Schmidt’s Ireland just might: discipline, writes Ronan O’Gara.

Amidst the blizzard of statistics sport throws around these days, one stands tall and above everything else in the four years since I’ve stopped playing rugby: Ireland conceding a total of 11 penalties in three tests against the All Blacks and Australia.

The rule of thumb has been, keep it below 10 penalties and a team gives itself a more than even chance. That’s for one game. Conceding 11 against the most attack minded test sides in the world, over the course of three matches, is stunning. I’m just shook by it. It has the capacity to redefine the way coaches think about the sport, about their preparation.

And, as a by-the-by, it also has the capacity for some bright spark in World Rugby to start prodding and tinkering with the rules in the mistaken belief one must not be rewarding disciplined defence to the detriment of all-out attack.

I met up with Alan Quinlan for a pizza in Dublin after Saturday’s victory against Australia and we got to thinking about what plenty of top tier international coaches are already pondering: How do you beat Ireland now, because they simply don’t give away cheap field position? Ireland were far from slick and polished in everything they did last Saturday, but their self-discipline is so enormous, so fundamental.

The Irish practice sessions from Monday to Friday are quite incredible.

Discipline is a word but how they live it is staggering in terms of the sanction for any player stepping out of line, offside. Joe Schmidt has a pocket full of yellow cards in his shorts around Carton House, dishing them out.

Replacement in if you step out of line, literally and metaphorically, and a nice while to stew on the sideline and mull over that mistake. Imagine the power of that, and the accumulation of trust built up over the three years Joe’s been head coach. It’s easy in that context to understand the power of adhering to strict principles.

One could surmise that relentless focus on the minutiae can become monotonous but no-one has said that to me. All I get is he is like no other coach. If you stimulate players enough, this work is exciting. Schmidt doesn’t take the responsibility away from the squad, which is crucial. It only becomes over-powering if the detail is baloney. But if you are inspired and learning under the coach, that’s what every professional player loves.

Contrast that with France, where the growing consensus Guy Noves is turning Les Bleus around flies in the face of the inconvenient fact their players are too ill-disciplined to target Ireland or England.

It was obvious against Australia and to a lesser extent, admittedly, against the All Blacks last Saturday that their infringements are brain dead penalties. And how could it be different when it is such a common trait in the Top 14, the lack of discipline, the apparent lack of understanding of the rules, the repetition of mistakes?

It is hugely frustrating for everyone trying to make France better when they consistently infringe in the same areas, in the same undisciplined manner. The frustration is greater when you look at the talent available to Noves in the three-quarter line.

Strangely enough, Ireland’s biggest obstacle in the new bonus-point Six Nations could be the opening trip to Edinburgh. A sticky affair and a serious banana skin. Scotland have the X Factor talents many of whom Munster will get a close look playing Glasgow tonight in the Pro12 and again in January in the Champions Cup.

Finn Russell is getting better, they will focus hugely on the ruck and the management will feel they’re capable of making a proper impact on the Six Nations. You just know the emphasis they will put on that first game. Ireland have a serious battle in prospect.

Wales are lost. At least in the context of the 2017 Championship. Warren Gatland has eyes only on the Lions, their attack patterns have grown stale, and teams have figured them out. Wales will always be capable on their day but I don’t believe they have the capacity to challenge for a Six Nations championship.

Jamie Roberts not starting the last couple of games is a big statement — though I am not sure the correct statement — from Rob Howley in terms of what Wales are doing with their squad.

Wales go to Rome on the opening weekend, which may throw up one of the inequities of the new bonus point system.

Conor O’Shea will unquestionably target that game for the Italians and the weather conditions on February 5 in Rome will more inclement than they would be towards the end of March when the Stadio Olimpico will be like a running track (for France on March 11). The likelihood of Wales coming away with a BP victory are considerably less than they would be if it was later in the calendar.

I’ll say this: If you’re losing to Wales you are not going to win the 2017 Six Nations. Gatland is a loss because he possesses a rare ability to convince his players not only to adhere to his style of play but also to imbue them with a strut, a confidence that they’re better than they actually are. Ireland play their first Friday night 6N game in Cardiff but Schmidt will have his players ready for their penultimate fixture.

The November internationals will be done and forgotten, and all the better that they will be. Ireland won’t try to recreate the dynamic they have had in the past month. January is a fresh start with plenty of positives and stuff to work on.

Andy Farrell has been a massive addition to the coaching set-up but it isn’t lost on him I am sure that Ireland are still giving up a lot of points considering the domination of possession and territory and the negligible amount of penalties conceded. Injuries at key moments notwithstanding, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia were obviously finding weaknesses somewhere. That doesn’t spoil the bigger picture, which are W’s against two of the best three sides in the world, but it will be looked at.

The most pleasing aspect from November has been the development of the squad, the experience young players are getting, meaning that the depth chart is four deep in some positions. With Conor Murray’s form and durability, plus the amount of backline injuries Ireland picked up in four internationals, maybe management will also consider three outfield backs on the bench next spring.

No pressure then Conor…


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