The Pale Rider

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Waiting In The Long Grass: Joe Schmidt has brought an unprecedented level of success to Irish rugby, but his team’s dip in form has come at the worst possible time. Were Ireland’s travails in the Six Nations the sign of a coach who is past his sell-by date, or is the arch-tactician keeping his cards close to his chest?


Anyone familiar with the 1985 Western classic Pale Rider will know that it contains many tropes of the genre: Clint Eastwood plays The Man With No Name, wanders into a small town, and takes it upon himself to fight for the locals, thus strengthening their resolve against a gang of murderers and thieves. I don’t know what Joe Schmidt is like with a six-shooter, but I do know that Ireland finished second-last the 2013 Six Nations with losses to Italy and Scotland before he mercifully decided to take the reins and give them the self-belief and tactical nous to consistently win games against the top sides in the world.


That’s what makes Ireland’s hardships in this year’s Six Nations all the more unfathomable, and with RWC 2019 kicking off next month (and their first warm-up game being on Saturday), I thought it would be a good time to take a look back at why Ireland’s displays in February and March were significantly poorer than what we’ve become accustomed to under Schmidt. They’ve been written off after a dreadful Championship that ended in a dismal loss to Wales in the Cardiff wind and rain, but being under the radar may just be exactly where their coach wants his team.


A Man For All Seasons

The majority of rugby coaches have a set idea of how the game should be played (usually determined by what part of the world they’re from) and they instruct their teams to play whatever style they subscribe to regardless of who they’re in charge of (i.e. a ‘top-down’ approach towards coaching). Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t; when Gregor Townsend departed the Glasgow Warriors, the Scottish club sought out the services of Dave Rennie because his Waikato Chiefs side played a brand of rugby that was in line with what they had been already doing under Townsend, namely a multi-phase, quick-ruck form of the game designed to avoid set-pieces that got the best out of a team that have an all-singing, all-dancing backline but a lightweight forward pack.


It’s been an perfect fit; Glasgow have continued to grow as a team because they have been allowed to express themselves with free-flowing, attacking rugby, and in the last two seasons, they’ve reached the knockout stages of the Pro14 twice (narrowly losing this year’s final to Leinster) and progressed to the quarter-finals of Europe once. Not every new coach is a success story, though. Munster never took to the Canterbury strategy of keeping the ball in hand and positioning forwards out wide under Rob Penney, and despite getting to two consecutive Heineken Cup semi-finals, the New Zealander’s time with the southern province is largely regarded as a transplant that didn’t take.


Schmidt is different from most coaches in that he formulates a game plan based on what his players are good at and what the opposition aren’t (i.e. a ‘bottom-up’ approach). Leinster played a style of rugby not too dissimilar to the All Blacks during Schmidt’s tenure, but Ireland have won big games by playing several different kinds of rugby under the Kiwi. We’ve seen them torment rudderless back three players with aerial bombardment:

Ire Aerial Bombardment 1 (v SA 2017)

Ire Aerial Bombardment 2 (v Fra 2019)

We’ve seen them grind teams into the dirt with a raking touch-finder/maul game plan:

Sexton Touch-Finder (v Wal 2014)

Henry Try (v Wal 2014)

We’ve seen them bludgeon teams to death with relentless one-out forward carries:

Ire One-Out Carrying Pattern 1 (v Eng 2018)

Ire One-Out Carrying Pattern 2 (v Aus 2018 - Test 2)

And we’ve seen them run immobile packs off their feet with multi-phase strike moves and expansive wide-wide play:

Ire Multi-Phase (v Fra 2014)

Ire Wide-Wide Play (v Ita 2016)

Figuring your opponent out before a contest doesn’t always guarantee that you’re going to win. As the old saying goes, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth, and although there are other coaches in the game who are analytical and adept at utilising the resources available to them, no one else comes even close to Schmidt in terms of ability to turn a crisis around when his team don’t start a game as expected.


If you go back and watch any of Leinster or Ireland’s notable victories under Schmidt, you’ll see that it was his half-time analysis that was the difference between his side winning and losing. Leinster’s miraculous comeback against Northampton in the 2011 Heineken Cup final was difficult to analyse at the time because of the state of delirium that it induced, but in hindsight, they didn’t just move Seán O’Brien to 6, improve their scrum, start making tackles and stop dropping the ball in the second half; they made wholesale changes to the way they attacked the Saints after failing to make as many inroads as usual in the first 40.


Instead of passing along the first line of attack and going to ground as they had done before half-time, they started hitting the second layerusing wraparounds to fix defenders and passing out of contact with more frequency, and it worked wonders. There were bursts up through the middle from O’Brien, Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip and Richardt Strauss, but the real damage was done in the 15-metre channel. Schmidt recognised that carrying at the Northampton defence one- or two-out wasn’t yielding a return, and he made the necessary adjustments.


Running Into A Brick Wall

So keeping all of that in mind, how could Schmidt go from being in a league of his own when it comes to changing how his team play between and within games to take full advantage of the opposition’s weak points to being tactically inflexible to the point of self-destruction? How could a side go from being past masters of kick-chase from 2013-2015 to not considering the tactic worthwhile anymore?


Ireland insisted on playing keep-ball when the opposition had figured out what they were doing and kept their wingers up flat, leaving no space in the front line of their defence:

Ire Keep-Ball 1 (v Eng 2019)

Ire Keep-Ball 2 (v Sco 2019)

Ire Keep-Ball 3 (v Ita 2019)

Ire Keep-Ball 4 (v Wal 2019)

It was like watching someone trying to break down a dam with a sledgehammer, and repeatedly running the ball against blitz defences put Ireland’s attacking structure and skill set under severe pressure, and their opponents gleefully profited from the mistakes that ensued.


The only game where Ireland used attacking kicks was against France, which they would have been foolish not to do, given how terrible the French back three were at covering the backfield. Using a serious tournament as misdirection is incredibly foolhardy; the loss of confidence that comes from losing games badly could hamstring Ireland going into the World Cup, but if it bears fruit, it will be hailed as a stroke of genius.


It wouldn’t be a surprise if it turned out that Schmidt used high voltage Test matches to warm up for greater challenges because he’s done it before. Ireland’s games against New Zealand in 2013 and 2018 were preceded by distracted performances against Australia and Argentina respectively and it’s well-known that the Ireland head coach used the first two games of the 2013 Autumn series to gear up for the All Blacks. Brilliant leaders can see the bigger picture and going by his comments after the Welsh defeat in March, it would seem that Schmidt is looking towards October 20th.


Pulling The Rabbit Out Of The Hat

There’s a widely held view that Ireland have an easy pool because it doesn’t have any Rugby Championship sides or Six Nations heavyweights, but in reality, it’s trickier than it appears at first glance. Scotland being first up is not ideal because Ireland are slow starters and the Scots have an uncanny knack for hanging around like a bad smell, especially against Ireland. The scheduling of the following two fixtures means that Ireland will have to field their second-string team against Japan (who will be playing with a huge amount of pride at home) and Russia (who could view Ireland’s reserves being selected against them as a sign of disrespect) to give their starters a chance to rest before facing the physical Samoans.


That being said, I still think Ireland can beat their pool opponents with the strategy that they persisted with in the Six Nations before unleashing a different set of tactics on South Africa in the quarters. The Scotland game won’t make for comfortable viewing, but Ireland played them in Murrayfield back in February with average form and a couple of injuries and came away with a win. If Ireland can win all of their pool games by repeating what they did in the Six Nations, it sets them up nicely to catch what will probably be South Africa off-guard in the last eight by kicking the leather off the ball.


The more I think about it, the more a kick-heavy game plan makes sense against the Springboks because it nullifies their strengths and targets their weaknesses. It reduces the influence of their superb defensive lineout on the game (because any ball they steal from Ireland deep in their own half will have to be kicked away), keeps their big pack moving around the pitch, exploits the positioning and size of small wingers and a diminutive full-back who is a converted 10, and they will be less likely to move the ball wide to their lethal three-quarter line if they are playing from deep in their own half. A jump in performance levels from what we saw this year will be required from Ireland, but they’ve never had any problem raising their game before.


I’ve seen Leinster and Ireland do remarkable things under Joe Schmidt. Sad as it sounds, the achievements he has guided his charges to have given me some of the happiest days of my life, and I fully expect more of the same from Ireland over the next few months. That might sound foolish or naïve in light of what transpired in the Six Nations, but Schmidt and the coaching and playing groups that he has around him are too good to let an opportunity like this pass them by. There’s no question that Ireland underwhelmed earlier this year, and they could well do the same in their warm-up games (which in truth are little more than live training sessions), but form is temporary and class is permanent, and Ireland’s favourite adopted Kiwi is definitely capable of performing one more miracle.


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