Life inside the bubble. There’s a lot to be said for it when you’re a national team coach, writes Simon Lewis
Like noise-cancelling headphones, the bubble forms a protective layer around a coach’s senses, drowning out the cacophony of radio and TV pundits and blinding his eyes to the seemingly endless column inches that would otherwise bombard him with advice, friendly or otherwise.
Ahead of this season’s Six Nations, Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt will have made sure to avoid the clamour for Leinster midfield prodigy Garry Ringrose to be handed his Test debut. He will have done his best to evade the media’s beauty contest for the captaincy and ignored all talk of who will lead the Lions on tour to his native New Zealand in June 2017.
Most of all, Schmidt will have toiled earnestly to sidestep the growing calls outside the camp for him to advance Ireland’s gameplan beyond the perceived reliance on Johnny Sexton’s boot.
Ireland’s rugby punditry, indeed the entire nation seemingly, has been calling for Schmidt to start employing the sort of expansive rugby he had used to such great effect during his tenure at Leinster when he guided the province to two Heineken Cups. The two Six Nations titles since have instead seen Schmidt’s Ireland largely playing the percentage game, kicking, chasing, gaining territory, and definitely not off-loading.
It has been hugely effective, bringing international silverware for the first time since the 2009 Grand Slam but drawing the thinly-veiled criticism of contemporaries.
England’s new boss Eddie Jones is definitely not a fan. He may or may not have had Ireland in his thoughts but his response to the subject of rugby style at last week’s Six Nations launch left the listener in no doubt as to his preferred way to play.
“It’s all about mindset,” Jones said. “Every time you attack there is a risk involved. If you want to play like the old Stoke City then that is the safest way to play isn’t it? Just stick the ball in the air, chase hard and get everyone to clap. If you’re not a strong side you can guarantee a close game.
“There’s a fascinating book on soccer – Soccernomics (by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski) – it’s all about the data on soccer. It shows teams which have done really well by playing high balls are teams that minimise the amount of time the ball is in play. It makes sense — minimise the time the ball is in play and it minimises the time the other team have to score. If you are kicking the ball relentlessly down the other end then it minimises the number of chances the other team will have to score.
“Rugby is exactly the same. Every time you run with the ball or pass it you are taking a greater risk than if you kick the ball. It is about developing the mindset so you have the belief and confidence to run with the ball and look after it properly. That’s what we want in our team (England). We don’t want to be reckless but we don’t want to be like an old Stoke City either.”
Schmidt is not ignorant of the criticism being levelled at him closer to home but argues Ireland are not as one-dimensional as people believe.
“It’s funny, the gameplan at the World Cup I thought served us really well,” the Ireland head coach said. “And we still scored two tries against Argentina (in the quarter-final defeat) and I could show you a bit of footage that one good decision gives us another one at least and that makes you competitive against a really good side. So, are we that far away? We’ve beaten all the southern hemisphere sides in the last two years, except the All Blacks. So I don’t think we’re that far away.We change our game plan a little week to week so not to do the same things.
“One of the things (incoming defence coach) Andy Farrell said when I was chatting to him, he said he found us difficult to prepare against because ‘they’ll do this or they’ll do that and then there was a little bit too much to cover.’ Then he’d finish up by saying ‘whatever you have seen, they’ll do something different again so we’ve got to be prepared for that.’
“If we are challenging teams to analyse us like that, that’s probably a strength for us because the more time they spend analysing us, the less time they’re going to be spending on their own game and looking at how to disassemble us.” Unsurprisingly, the ever forensic Schmidt has done some analysis of his own on the way New Zealand won the Webb Ellis Cup last October.
“Per game we kicked the same number of times as the All Blacks. You have a look at the All Blacks’ last three games, how did they play against France (in the quarters)? France only made two less offloads than the All Blacks. How’d they play against South Africa? They suffocated them, they put the ball in behind them, they kicked a huge number of times.
“Then against the Wallabies (in the final), they changed it up again. They didn’t play the same way and they’ve got fantastic players to play any way they want to on any given day depending on how they think they want to manipulate the opponent.” There are also mitigating factors against drastic change, believes Schmidt, not least the time available to him to work with his players. Since the World Cup exit last October he has had just one 24-hour training camp at Christmas and six training sessions since his squad gathered for Six Nations camp on January 26 — not a lot of time to revolutionise playing style.
“I think it is about getting a balance in how you play and there’s a reality in that we’ve got five trainings before we play Wales,” he said last Wednesday in London.
“There’s a reality you can’t reinvent the wheel; you can continually fine tune it, but to reconstruct is very difficult.” So Schmidt will tweak and adjust as he sees fit for the next seven weeks within the narrow parameters the schedule permits. It is not ideal but it has worked for the past two seasons and there were not too many complaints come late March in either 2014 or 2015.
The onus may be on Jones and England to prove him wrong.
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