Strategically speaking, Ireland were as impressive as any nation in the first round of games, writes Ronan O’Gara
TOMORROW night at Twickenham, we see the first Tier One side properly backed into a corner at this Rugby World Cup.
Defeat for England or Wales in Pool A will not eliminate them, but force the loser into a do-or-die armwrestle with Michael Cheika’s Australia a week later on October 3rd. The level of detail required at this level is extraordinary, but at this juncture, everyone is loathe to be showing too much of their hand. That all changes for England-Wales.
Stuart Lancaster prefers Owen Farrell for this assignment, evidently with the bulk of Jamie Roberts in mind. George Ford is a more complete ten but he’s smaller and if you’ve Roberts coming down a channel at your out-half, that can influence thinking.
I wonder how Ford felt getting out of bed yesterday morning. He is not as strong a defender but every top side needs a conductor for the orchestra. Lancaster will say he is lucky to have two great tens, but if you are one of those tens, you need to to know that you are the main one. At a World Cup, you want to be The Man.
England are more static with Farrell at 10, Ford is more of a Mozart. Are you going out to defend your half or go out to attack and win the game? Are the All Blacks picking their team on who they are playing this weekend, or on the basis of what they are planning themselves?
It will be interesting to see which of them Lancaster picks against the Wallabies. If Wales upset the hosts tomorrow night, he could have a pair of out-halves shy on confidence for that epic struggle.
You can spot the sides whose systems are tight, and those that are not. Of course it was Canada, but strategically speaking, Ireland were as impressive as any nation in the first round of games.
Dave Kearney’s try off a set-piece against the Canucks was the epitome of a serious machine in motion. Intelligent set-up, broad thinking to have Sean O’Brien out on a wing. Excellent clean outs, everyone recognising their role. A team-try like that brings massive satisfaction to the group. This is what they practice all week, and hey look, it works.
In the 2007 World Cup in France, we practised ad nauseum to defend an Argentinian scrum five metres out. We got dusted and busted in training, we re-did it, we thought we have it right - and then Argentina came out and scored from that precise play.
What does that do for your head?
Now are you trusting the gameplan, the little details? No, because you’ve lost faith in the work you’ve done during the week. But having that faith and seeing that work executed on the pitch gives you confidence that you are doing the right thing.
When the pressure comes on, do we have a coach we trust in?
Do we have a captain we trust in?
Do we have the gameplan?
How do we know?
Because we have seen it work in previous rounds.
One of Joe Schmidt’s biggest assets is his ability to inform fifteen players at any given time precisely what their role is. That is invaluable. I don’t know of another coach in my time in the game who has that skill-set, save maybe Wayne Smith.
That’s France’s problem. People think Philippe Saint-Andre’s side are ready to explode now - they might explode as individuals, but they have absolutely zero team cohesion. I am trying not to say that, I truly wish it wasn’t that way. I earn my living in the country. But such is France.
These lads are very good rugby players, but there is no one joining the dots. The victory over Romania underlined what makey-up rugby is, and you can’t do that at this level. A team doesn’t need to be so rigid as to know what’s happening in Phase 9, but you have to three phases of the game structured before you can play.
Italy have bigger issues than phase play. They will have Sergio Parisse back in gear by the time Ireland face them but it’s not a leap of faith to presume now that for Schmidt, the French game is everything. Ireland has four games to get right to win a World Cup, which is hugely manageable with a full deck on board.
WALES may not be the tactically creative side in this tournament under Warren Gatland, but the simplicity of their approach shouldn’t detract from what Warrenball can do to the best of opponents. Gatland’s a superb brainwasher, pounding the message that his side is fitter, faster, stronger than the opposition. And his players believe that.
Wales are not top three in the world material, but they will get their detail right. What Gatland cannot control is the rank bad luck they have had with injuries. The eleventh-hour withdrawals of Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpenny only compounded the biggest loss of all, Jonathan Davies, who is the real missing link in that back-line.
The goal-kicking of Halfpenny is a miss, but Dan Biggar is up to replacing that. Davies has a presence and a footballing ability that will be difficult to replace. In Ireland, there will always be no more than a grudging respect towards Davies because Gatland selected him for the Lions ahead of Brian O’Driscoll, but he’s a top class player.
His midfield partner Roberts has huge confidence in him, with good reason. They complemented each other perfectly. Alun Wyn Jones’s fitness status is uncertain with a reported medial ligament injury, and they are also struggling at tight-head.
Gatland’s forte is in such backs-to-the-wall situations. It’s unlikely they’ll surprise England tactically and Shaun Edwards’ run defence might be difficult to overcome down in Kilfeacle, when it’s blowing a gale on a wet day, but the quality of these surfaces at the World Cup and the intelligence of the opposition means it’s a lock that’s now easily picked.
I was disappointed with England against Fiji last Friday night (with the exception of the impressive Mike Brown), and their problems might have been compounded if the Fijians brought a clearly defined game approach to the table.
Fiji interests me. Between the Pro D2 and the Top 14, there are 200 Fijians plying their trade in France. Their capacity to literally grow from pre-season - their genetics are phenomenal - is astounding. I’ve seen lads coming back from Fiji overweight, and in eight week, they’re as ripped as anything. And fast to boot.
But they are caught between a rock and a hard place in today’s environment - trying to be a little more structured when it doesn’t suit them at all.
They are trying to create exit patterns from their own half, slowing down the ball, passing it back to the kicker, but it’s not natural to them. It’s like a goal-kicker trying to copy another goal-kicker - he’ll only get to the stage where that kicker was, but he will never better him by copying him.
Everything Wales does at Twickenham Lancaster will expect. That doesn’t guarantee success against Gatland, as we all know too well, but it would be up there with Gatty’s greatest moments if he were to turn the hosts’ plan upside down.
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