Ireland’s secret lies in the backroom

Joe Schmidt deservedly received the plaudits for guiding Ireland to a Grand Slam on Saturday. But the New Zealander was quick to credit the efforts of his backroom team in the unforgettable spring campaign. Rory Keane reports.

Ireland’s secret lies in the backroom

Andy Farrell (defence coach)

Saturday’s win at Twickenham would have pleased Ireland’s defence guru, for many reasons. This was his first visit back to England HQ since that ill-fated 2015 World Cup campaign.

Andy Farrell, along with Stuart Lancaster, Mike Catt and Graham Rowntree, were given their P45s by the RFU after England failed to qualify from their pool.

When Les Kiss left his role as defence coach with Ireland after the same tournament, Joe Schmidt needed a specialist to fill the vacancy. When Farrell was back on the market, it was no-brainer for the Kiwi.

Farrell has been integral to Ireland’s cause ever since. Ireland’s defence came in for criticism in the early rounds particularly against Wales when the home side were exposed in the wide channels far too often for Farrell’s liking. Ireland delivered their most aggressive and organised defensive performance in the final round.

Keith Earls’s tap tackle on Elliot Daly or Sean Cronin’s last-ditch effort to prevent Mike Brown scoring in the corner had Farrell’s imprint all over them.

“The defence was incredible,” said Johnny Sexton after the game.

“We made Andy proud on the first day back in Twickenham for him.”

Simon Easterby (forwards coach)

A mainstay of Schmidt’s backroom team since he replaced John Plumtree as Ireland’s forwards

coach in 2014, Simon Easterby has overseen a slick lineout operation as well as bringing many innovations to the pack.

The Grand Slam success was built on strong foundations, and the lineout has been one of Ireland’s most consistent systems in Schmidt’s green machine. Eddie Jones deliberately selected George Kruis, a highly-regarded lineout specialist, to disrupt Ireland’s set piece last Saturday, but the Saracens lock never got near an Irish throw, save for one close-shave in the first-half.

Ireland finished with a 100 per cent success rate out of touch at Twickenham with all 14 for Rory Best or substitute Cronin’s throws reaching their target.

The fact Ireland have achieved all of this without their totem Devin Toner, who filled a bench role for most of the championship, is all the more impressive. James Ryan has been working under Easterby since last summer’s tour of the States and Japan and he has flourished under the former Ireland flanker’s guidance.

Greg Feek (scrum coach)

For the majority of this century, Ireland leaned heavily on John Hayes and Mike Ross to lock out the Ireland scrum. Munster tighthead Hayes carried the load from his first appearance in 2000 all the way up to his retirement from Test rugby in 2011.

Thankfully, Ross was there to take up the slack and was the cornerstone of the Irish pack for the following six seasons.

During that period, Ireland were one injury away from a front-row crisis which came on a dark day against England at Twickenham back in 2012. When Ross left the fray early on that St Patrick’s Day showdown, Tom Court was sent on to fill the void at tighthead. Ireland were pummelled and Greg Feek, sitting up in the coaches box, knew something had to be done.

Along with the IRFU’s performance director David Nucifora and the union high-performance manager Collie McEntee, Feek has completely overhauled Ireland’s front row factory.

Now, Ireland have a batch of props that is the envy of the world. Tadhg Furlong is regarded as the premier tighthead in world rugby with able deputies in young Andrew Porter, a convert from loosehead at Feek’s behest, and Munster’s John Ryan.

When Marty Moore completes his move to Ulster from Wasps this summer, Ireland’s riches in this area will increase.The loosehead stocks are just as plentiful with Cian Healy and Jack McGrath battling for the jersey while Dave Kilcoyne, James Cronin and Finlay Bealham also in contention.Feek can be very pleased with his contribution to the cause.

Richie Murphy (kicking and skills coach)

An unheralded member of Schmidt’s backroom team. Murphy was a distinguished fly-half for Clontarf in his playing days and brings a calming presence to the squad.

As well as his excellent work with Ireland’s kickers, Murphy is one of Irelands’s ‘water carriers’ during Test matches and will deliver messages to the squad from Schmidt as well as offering guidance to Sexton and the other place-kickers. Murphy’s finest work in this championship has been the evolution of Irish restarts.

Taking inspiration from the All Blacks, Schmidt’s side have became hugely competitive in this area.

Sexton’s memorable drop goal in Paris was the culmination of a 41-phase assault but it began with Iain Henderson reclaiming Sexton’s 22-metre drop out. Chris Farrell brilliantly reclaimed one of Sexton’s restarts against Wales. It has become another string to Ireland’s bow.

The Dubliner has worked with Sexton for many years and was alongside Schmidt when Leinster won back-to-back Heineken Cup titles in 2011 and 2012. When Ireland’s No 10 rifled over that 45m drop goal in Paris, it was a just reward for the hours the pair have spent preparing for such scenarios.

Murphy knew “the minute he hit it” Sexton’s kick would clear the crossbar at the Stade de France. He’s seen enough of them.

Vinny Hammond (Video analyst)

It is a familiar sight for the players at Carton House, the IRFU High-Performance analyst is regularly spotted slumped over his computer, battling fatigue, pouring over footage in the late hours.

Hammond works closely with Schmidt and his coaching staff reviewing the squad’s performances in training and games and prepares video packages of set piece, strike moves and defensive systems.

Schmidt’s Monday morning review sessions are infamous among the Irish camp; Hammond plays a key role in dissecting the details.

A key player in the Ireland set-up for the best part of a decade, Hammond was brought on board by Warren Gatland for last summer’s British and Irish Lions tour in New Zealand.

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