My estimation of Joe Schmidt increases with every passing Ireland game. For last Saturday the wily Kiwi coach affected nothing less than a coup. It was impressive enough that the Irish underdogs secured a rare win over the mighty Springboks, fresh from their own heroics in the Rugby Championship; where only a few short weeks ago, the South African giants defeated the world champion All Blacks. But Saturday’s victory must be put in context by the fact that the Irish hosts had been shorn of no fewer than sixteen frontline players. In addition to an injury list of monumental proportions, on Saturday morning, the men in green’s openside flanker, Chris Henry was forced to pull out with a suspected virus; leaving relative rookie Rhys Ruddock to man the fort in the unfamiliar number seven shirt. Such were the calamities afflicting the Irish prior to Saturday’s match, it is my contention that last weekend’s win represents the best Irish performance since their triumph over the Wallabies in the pool stages of the 2011 Rugby World Cup
There was so much to admire in the Irish performance that it’s rather difficult to provide a concise analysis, but there are several aspects of their game that warrant particular scrutiny. Saturday’s effort was intelligent and innovative, full of tactical nous and strategic vision. As such, Ireland’s performance had their respected Kiwi coach written all over it. First of all, the hosts’ shrewdness in the contact areas bore all the hallmarks of a side meticulously drilled by Joe Schmidt. On Saturday, the Six Nations champions were clinical and efficient at the breakdown, and their tactics seemed to revolve around preventing the southern hemisphere powerhouses from achieving the sort of ascendancy they achieved at times at Ellis Park. In order to ensure a fair contest for possession, the Irish hustled, harried, and disrupted at the point of contact; the back row effort exemplified by a typically barnstorming performance from Leinster number eight, Jamie Heaslip. Along with his pugnacious partner in crime, Peter O’Mahony, Heaslip ensured that the Springboks had to compete ferociously to attain the levels of possession to which they have become accustomed. Such rigorous attention to detail meant that the likes of Willie le Roux and Bryan Habana were denied the space to run riot. But the real hero here was Ruddock, plucked from the bench to make only his second start for his country, and the unlikely openside put in an exuberant performance that was capped by a well-worked try at the beginning of the second period.
Away from the coalface, Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton once again proved categorically that they have emerged as one of the finest halfback pairings on the planet. If the dynamic duo can retain this level of momentum during the next twelve months, there is no reason why the unheralded Irish can’t emerge as genuine contenders in next year’s World Cup. Allied to that, virtual novices Robbie Henshaw, and the naturalised Jared Payne offered hope that there is indeed life after the long-standing O’Driscoll-D’Arcy centre axis. Both men put in performances of serenity and composure that will have delighted their coach, while providing him with a few welcome selection headaches.
Above all else, Saturday’s marvellous win highlights the cleverness and alacrity that Ireland’s head coach has brought to his adopted country. Take the much-vaunted South African maul. The maul has been a supremely successful tactic adopted by several Springbok sides of recent vintage. On Saturday the Irish, knowing the onslaught that was coming, refused to compete via their defensive lineout, and left the South African maul uncontested. As no maul had been formed, therefore, Irish loose head Jack McGrath was free to contest the ball, and from there, the home pack descended on the pill with an orchestrated ferocity. The tactic (utilised more than once on Saturday) was incredibly effective, denying the visitors one of their primary attacking weapons, and allowing the hosts to turn over the ball. This novel strategy was perfectly legal, but had clearly taken the visitors completely unawares. Schmidt’s fingerprints, furthermore, were also evidenced in both of the Irish tries, which clearly had their genesis on the training pitch. Similarly, the aggression and line speed exhibited by the Irish defence was indicative of Les Kiss’s renowned organisational skills, while the overall efficacy of the pack attested to the positive contribution of new forwards coach, Simon Easterby. There were of course flaws in Saturday’s win such as the amount of missed tackles by the hosts, while it was striking that the Irish didn’t manage a single offload during the entire game. But Ireland’s management won’t give one hoot about their detractors, for there was enough in Saturday’s performance to suggest that last seasons Six Nations victory was not a mere flash in the pan. And with Mr Rugby, Joe Schmidt pulling the strings, Irish supporters are starting to believe as we approach World Cup year, that anything is possible.
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