RONAN O'GARA: Learning the lessons and closing the deal

Keith Earls: Explosive back has so much more to give. Picture: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

You like your Friday glass half-full or half-empty? Joe Schmidt will have learned a lot over the past month working with players he didn’t have as coach to Leinster.

Seeing a player in an opposition jersey on a Saturday afternoon gives a coach about 10% of that player’s jigsaw. When you have them to work with day in, day out, you eliminate the mistake of incomplete judgements.

For example, a 15 who mightn’t be good passing off one hand is doing his reps off his (weaker) left hand in training, putting the winger away. In an international match environment, you might see the value of work once every four games — and even then he mightn’t nail the pass. Only when you have that player in camp can you make a call on his weakside passing, an accurate assessment.

This is my Keith Earls Theory. I see so much to work with in training with Earls, stuff you would never see as an opposition coach, even one as partial to detail as Schmidt.

Keith is a class player, but there so much more in the tin from him. He’s Ireland’s most explosive back, and in training he’s the one who troubles Brian O’Driscoll as an outside centre every time.

But a casual observer hears of Earls and thinks of Manu Tuilagi steamrolling over him in the World Cup warm-up game at the Aviva in 2011. But I’d be in awe watching the lad training some days. The one answer I don’t have is where his best position is. Is he the 13, is he better off left wing, and if he is, where is Zebo going to go? He has that power and explosiveness in attack, and as a defensive centre, it’s more about reading and match intelligence than strength, even though he is not lacking in that department.

The new Irish coach has already identified Robbie Henshaw as something he can work with in the guise of a Welsh back, an Alex Cuthbert or a George North. Schmidt used camp to see what he can shape him into because he is something different to the average Irish back. There is serious size there to work with.

Ireland should not feel too smug about itself this week — after all, it’s difficult to lose a 19-point lead at home, irrespective of the quality of the opposition. But bigger picture, we’re in a far better place than Irish rugby has been for some time. There is better cover in some positions than others, and that was underlined by the impact the All Blacks bench had on the game last Sunday. But you add Donncha Ryan, Stephen Ferris, Simon Zebo, Keith Earls, Donncha O’Callaghan, Andrew Trimble, Richardt Strauss, that’s where international rugby is going now — especially with the forwards. You’ve got to go really hard for 50 minutes, then know you’ve another quality forward coming in for the last 30. The fusion of sports science with passion must produce 12 international quality forwards playing instead of eight. That could mean massive incremental improvements for our national team.

We were all a little light-headed at the breathlessness of last Sunday’s test. Myself included. With the benefit of space and distance, are we forgetting that in Christchurch in 2012, we were similarly close to beating the All Blacks? Nigel Owens gave a poor penalty decision against us that would have put Ireland ahead there with six minutes to go. But because the game was in the Aviva, the country was on the edge of their seats and we were 19 points up, people are in a tizzy.

But losing a 19-point lead at home is actually worse than some of the narrow losses of the past — especially with the pack dominating. Johnny Sexton knows as well as anyone that you can’t leave any points on the pitch against the best side in the world. I know it too well. He left five big points out there and his replacement, Ian Madigan, will look at himself and acknowledge he has to do so much better on the fateful last try for New Zealand.

He’s got to knock himself out or knock out the All Black. But for Dane Coles to run through him eight metres from the line, you just can’t do that to your team-mates. Am I being harsh on a young player? Yes I am, but I believe Madigan has the mental fortitude to contribute substantially to the Irish squad in the lead up to the 2015 World Cup.

The 80th minute penalty against Jack McGrath was harsh, but here’s the thing; and everyone playing professional rugby knows it — ever since Munster choked the last few minutes out of the clock against Toulouse in the Heineken Cup final in 2006, no game will ever end like that again. You cannot keep the ball like that as we did for five or six minutes, you can’t just flop on the ball and recycle ad nauseum; whether it’s right or wrong in the law book, the referee will give a penalty to the team without the ball for the sake of the spectacle. It’s an unwritten rule now.

In Christchurch, it was my last chance to beat New Zealand; some of the current group may not get another opportunity. So you look around the changing room for the personalities who will change that horrible piece of Irish rugby history in the next few years.

Sean O’Brien knew it that day in Christchurch. I saw it in his eyes after. But there were others just happy we pushed them so close away from home. But, you see an opening like last Sunday, you’ve got to close the deal. Many Irish teams have been close, but they haven’t been 19 points up either. Ireland failed to score at home for 47 minutes. You know what I mean?

I like Peter O’Mahony too. A proper Munster person, respectful, proud and works hard. He’s a leader at a young age, he keeps the head down, and he shows up for work. He was unlucky not to make the Lions this year, but he’d have been a journeyman on the tour, whereas in four years time, he can be one of the leaders in New Zealand.

Conor Murray has stepped up, he was very good again Sunday. Ditto Rob Kearney, a quiet leader among the group. Not everyone needs to be vocal.

Cian Healy is very much focused on his own performance; he sees his leadership role as performing for the team, which is crucial. You can’t have 15 talkers, have to have some fellas who are doers too.

It has all made for a good buzz around the Ireland camp. Team Ireland is the most important theme of national camp at the minute, and that hasn’t always been the case. It will be tested now and whether it survives the Heineken Cup rounds before and after Christmas, and carries into the Six Nations, will tell a tale. I’ve said it here already — this squad has decided the World Cup in 2015 is what they want to peak for. A camp over Christmas will be important to maintain momentum, and there is momentum there. But consistency must return. It’s been missing for a while.


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