THE LONGER A winning streak goes on, the greater the blow when it ends.
Ireland have won 10 from the last 11, but instead, it feels like they’re on a one-game losing streak. Scotland aren’t the toughest opposition Joe Schmidt has faced, but Saturday will be the biggest challenge of his international career.
The levels of expectation going into the Welsh game, and the nature of the defeat, have led to disproportionate levels of gloom. Some of the players will be carrying that weight, whatever they are saying to the media. There is almost a sense that this Six Nations has no joy left to give.
Matt Willams reckons Ireland’s lack of a running game will kill their World Cup hopes (and in fairness, was saying it long before the Welsh game), Tony Ward thinks there is a case for seven or eight changes to be made, and Neil Francis feels there was an ‘air of finality’ about the loss to Wales.
Staying on a consistent high is a good feeling, but losing, then getting back up again, as the Welsh players will testify, is even more satisfying.
A number of their players consider their 2013 Championship to be more satisfying than the 2012 Grand Slam, because they somehow recovered mentally from that opening day defeat to Ireland.
This year’s Championship has been a strange one — no definitive form lines, no outstanding team, and no outstanding player. Italy have regressed, Scotland have changed style but are still getting the same old results, France are at their lowest ebb since the 1950s, England are consistent but rarely excellent, and while Wales are in form, they are still a little off their peak of 2012/13.
Last Saturday wouldn’t be far off the most disappointing day of Joe Schmidt’s coaching career, and it is the first real backward step since he took the Ireland job. Wingers screaming for the ball, messy lineouts and Sexton eating a Jonathan Davies handoff will be the lasting images of the day.
With all that considered then, a quality try-filled display against Scotland and a second successive title would be huge for this team. There isn’t abundant evidence that they will turn on the style, but there are a few reasons to believe things will at least improve in Murrayfield.
Source: Joe Giddens
(Ireland players were left disappointed following a flawed performance against Wales)
Amidst all the mediocrity in Cardiff, Paul O’Connell showed that aggression, anticipation and the right lines of running will breach most defences. Sean Cronin proved that decisiveness and pace and a low body position almost always result in a player getting over the gain line. And Iain Henderson showed that we’ve been leaving our most destructive ball carrier on the bench.
The other plus for management is many of the problems are obvious, and can be worked on in the space of a week. The lineout will be fixed, the kicking game will tighten up, the wingers will look for more work, and, most importantly, Sexton will never again play as badly for Ireland.
Tellingly, Ireland’s best spell came when Eoin Reddan and Ian Madigan teamed up at halfback. That’s not because they are superior players to the men they replaced, it is because they were told to up the tempo, and the whole team looked better as a result.
There is obviously a place for structure and planning and exit strategies and box kicks, but Ireland clearly need to mix it up more against the best teams. This side employs several different defensive strategies, but in attack, they’ve been mainly been relying on just one.
This lack of creativity and penetration wouldn’t be so confusing if it wasn’t Joe Schmidt in charge. Ireland were top try scorers in last year’s Six Nations, and in Paris, when it really counted, they got some nicely worked scores. There was also the NZ game, South Africa last November, and his Leinster career. These last four games are the outliers on Schmidt’s CV.
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Maybe he doesn’t think this team are suited to offloading and counter attacks, or maybe the players simply haven’t been taking enough responsibility on themselves, but there comes a point where being conservative is the riskier option.
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