Two Man Rucks and Other Stories

Joe Schmidt’s reign as Ireland coach properly kicks off on Saturday with a game against Samoa.  It’s the first of three tests in what is a daunting series.  Even determining what constitutes a passing grade for the series is hard work.  Ireland should beat Samoa.  Yes, Samoa are a much improved team these days, and yes, they’re even ranked higher than Ireland in the tabes, but with home advantage and better preparations, even if it’s a struggle Ireland start that game as favourites.  Lose that one and it’s a bad start.

Of course the opposite is true in the case of New Zealand.  Ireland have a habit of raising their game against the BNZers, but never win.  Ever.  Last time they came to Dublin, Ireland produced one of their better games under Kidney and only lost by 20.  The Kiwis are on a different planet right now (well, it is almost exactly halfway between world cups, so they’re bound to be coming to a peak) and any sort of performance against them will count as a positive.

But what about Australia?  They look more or less hopeless.  Awful against the Lions, weak-willed for much of the Rugby Championship, but there was that seven-try purging of Argentina and game Bledisloe Cup game to suggest that they could still have the goods to swat away a mid-pack team like Ireland.  But then they reverted to mush against England and in the process lost to a very inexperienced test side.  Momentum is probably the keyword here.  If Ireland can get off to a good start against Samoa, then expectations will build and the public will begin to feel we can take the Wobs.  Play poorly against Samoa, though, and we’ll start to get that sinking feeling.

We’re going to be optimistic, though.  The players should get a lift from the new coach coming in, and we have enough faith in Schmidt as a coach to believe he can deliver two wins in his first two games.  We think the Samoa game will be tight, and possibly hard to watch, but this Australia team is there for the taking, with the caveat that if we give Quade Cooper enough ball, he will hurt us.  Ireland’s injury troubles aren’t that dreadful.  Zebo and Earls are a loss, but they can put out their preferred front and back rows (mostly – but Fez ain’t gonna be back any time soon).  For sure, they need O’Connell and Sexton starting, and at their best, but neither is even close to ruled out yet.

Almost more important is the performance level.  With that in mind, on Against the Head on Monday night, a rare thing happened.  Rare for RTE anyway.  The panel provided some insightful, technical analysis.  For those used to the bluster of George Hook, and the subsequent requirement for everyone else to get dragged down to his level, listening to Eddie O’Sullivan – ever a man with an eye for detail, whatever you make of him – explain Schmidt’s predilection for the two-man ruck and what it means for the team was a breath of fresh air.  Few committed to the ruck means lots of runners and options out wide and in midfield, which is how Leinster repeatedly scythed opposition defences open.  But of course, it requires that said two individuals have to absolutely obliterate the ruck to ensure quick ball.  Fail to remove a David Pocock type jackalling over the ball and the rest of the chaps are standing in line waiting for the ball, and can’t get there before it’s too late.  Of course!  RTE tend to shy away from this sort of thing, obviously afraid it’s too technical for their audience, but the opposite is in fact the case.  Eddie made it crystal clear what the implications of putting two in the ruck are, and suddenly something that lots of people may not notice, or take for granted, becomes something to keep an eye on in the upcoming games.  Go Eddie.  And step forward habitual ruck-smashers Rory Best, Paul O’Connell and Jamie Heaslip for key roles in this department this November.

We’re all familiar by now with the aerial image of Ireland against New Zealand when there were multiple Irish forwards, and a back, and their fly-half ruck inspecting when there was not even one Kiwi in the picture.  It showcased a confused, tactically inept team.  We’re expecting different things from Schmidt’s Ireland – tactical cohesion and a playing style the players will enjoy, and profit from.

After the horrendous year Ireland have had so far, we’ll take it. If it’s good enough to beat Samoa, and at least make Australia win the game, that’s about par. If we can beat Australia, it will be a great platform to take into a Six Nations which looks pretty open. Three home wins there is currently baseline (oh, how the mighty have fallen) but that is where we have found ourselves.

In terms of personnel, Ireland look well able to play Schmidt’s high-tempo offloading game – the likes of O’Mahony, Jackson, Bowe and Murray should be comfortable with it, and we already know the Blue Meanies can do it. Following Ireland has been a frustrating experience in recent years, and playing for them hasn’t seemed to be much more fun – turn that around, get the new stadium finally rocking, win some games playing good rugger, and maybe even unite the fan base. No pressure Joe!

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  1. Len

     /  November 6, 2013

    I think this is the first time in a long time that I’m actually excited about and Ireland game and more specifically the way we approach the game. We should actually be going out to win as opposed to not loose which will be refreshing.

  2. Proper analysis? I’ll have to get on RTE player.

    Eddie always had a good eye. However, his man-management seemed to be lacking (his absence of friends in Irish rugby nowadays is extremely telling, and also a bit ridiculous) while, like both his predecessor and successor, he’s an intransigent aul bollocks.

    For all the stupid things our hacks write about rugby – and, let’s face it, most of them don’t bother with fine detail, don’t wanna know or simply don’t know, so they have to fill the pages with other stuff, cue “magic in the water”-type nonsense – the Peter O’Mahony narrative is maybe the most laughable.

    However, POM is the type of player who could really blossom under Schmidt, that athleticism and natural ball-handling will go down very well – and, if Joe can get the team playing to the desired patterns, one would imagine POM will also get more involved (the main charge against him, and certainly something I worry about).

    For Schmidt players, see also Conor Murray and Keith Earls, centre (I’m only half joking with that last bit, though do think it’s unlikely).

    Anyway: my own personal chief hope is that – as Len alluded to in the first post – I can be confident that we’ll go out and give a good account of ourselves (and the players/talent we have) more often than not, rather than the one-in-five monster showing we put in under latter day Kidney.

    Honestly, if we get a couple of trophies as well that would be brilliant, but I just don’t want it to be so regularly disappointing to watch us play. It shouldn’t be a chore. For what it’s worth, I imagine the players feel like that to the nth degree at the minute, it’s been a while since playing for Ireland looked like the fun it should be (as well as an honour, responsibility, etc.).

    • Like totally, as they say. The POM narrative is so ridiculous as to be hilarious. At least we can all reach some sort of consensus on him being a good player at this stage, even if we all got there from different directions. And I do agree, I think he’s a ‘Schmidt player’. He’s got the ball handling for it and I expect they’ll be looking to get the ball into his hands fairly often.

      Also agree totally about the ‘fun factor’. We mentioined in a recent post that Schmidt’s Leinster were very happy-clappy and looked to be enjoying their rugby. In the last couple of seasons, the Irish players looked miserable. Sexton and BOD looked like they had the weight of the world on them at times.

      • osheaf01

         /  November 6, 2013

        Careful, WOC. LeinsterLion’s head might explode at the thought of Faux-Hard-Fake POM as a “Schmidt player”. You wouldn’t want blood on your hands. You’ve already sailed close to the wind when you rated Conor Murray as anything higher than adequate, given LL’s rating of his as the worst SH in green since Mick Bradley…

        • Leinsterlion

           /  November 6, 2013

          Hey, I hope both prove me wrong, Conor Murray while improved still cant pass consistently without taking steps and I’ve yet to see POM live up to the billing the have given him.

  3. Might have to give Against The Head a watch now. Very excited about these games. Particularly looking forward to two things: seeing how Murray gets on under Schmidt, and if Paddy Jackson can reproduce his excellent provincial form for Ireland (with added goal-kicking, ideally). Hopefully Luke Marshall can cement his place at 12 too.

    On that awful photo: presumably, the team had been told beforehand to make sure that they committed numbers to secure ruck ball as BNZ would be attempting to slow down or steal ball. That’s not a bad coaching instruction, per se. But if you come out on the pitch and suddenly your opposition aren’t contesting the breakdown but are instead fanning across the pitch in defence, you should be able to spot that and make the change on the field. A coach can’t think for players on the pitch, and that picture is a prime example of players doing idiotic things because they’re not looking at the game, thinking about it, and reacting. What it highlights for me is the lack of game intelligence our players often display, in particular an inability to change the game plan as they go along. Hopefully Schmidt and the new provincial coaches will, over time, help to instil that in the current and future Ireland team.

    • I think you’re quite right in calling out the players for not playing what’s in front of them but your conclusion that it’s a lack of intelligence in the players is not something I’d agree with.

      Rather I’d say the excessive focus on structured, low risk, territorial play meant that the players never felt empowered to react to what they were seeing in front of them for fear of moving out of the structured gameplan and therefore incurring the wrath of an under pressure coaching ticket.

      Whilst I’m not expecting a complete reversal of this starting with the Samoa game, Schmidt is definitely the type of coach who puts the responsibility back on the players to play what’s in front of them – but armed with specific weapons which he knows will work due to his exhaustive analysis and repeat until its muscle memory training.

      • curates_egg

         /  November 6, 2013

        Spot on Rob. Said players had no problem playing what was in front of them at their provinces (for the most part), which leads one to believe said players were not as responsible as Kidney apologists want us to believe. The total inability to adapt gameplans and selections to the opposition was so painful for Irish rugby fans from 2010 on. We will know more by the end of the 6 Nations whether this was truly the players responsibility but it seems unlikely.

      • Bueller

         /  November 6, 2013

        ‘That’ photo contains 5 leinster players famed for their heads-up decision making learnt under Schmidt. ‘That’ photo is just a photo and is not indicative of the players or the coaching regime. I do think the players have a lot to answer for – they are professionals and grown men and know better than that – they should have learnt that from u-12 upwards and it is not the national coaches job to teach the basics.

        • curates_egg

           /  November 6, 2013

          Seems you have not read Rob’s comment correctly. The point is that: if these players were doing this for their provinces, why were they suddenly not doing it for Ireland? You claim it is essentially the players fault…I can’t see the logic there though, when the variable is not the players but the management and the gameplan (and lack of any flexibility). “We will know more by the end of the 6 Nations whether this was truly the players’ responsibility but it seems unlikely.”

          • Sound Steve

             /  November 6, 2013

            Can’t believe that the photo is still getting airtime. Anyone who has played a reasonable level will get that Reddan was box-kicking, hence creating a long ruck in order to give him as much clearance space as possible. Also, look at his feet. Really disappointed that the Mole chose this to target in his last piece too. There was enough wrong with the Kidney regime without isolating photos of rucks out of context.

            Two man rucks are all well and good when you have the physically dominant pack of forwards and the ball carriers to get you on the front foot in the first place but we don’t really have that (outside of O’Brien). Any sort of ruck contest from a big pack will, at best, slow your ball considerably or, at worst, force a turnover. I’d love to see it but I just know an SA/England/France could just jam the rucks and kill our ball.

          • Sound Steve

             /  November 6, 2013

            Also, dropped balls, missed kicks, poor passes, poor decision-making – players’ responsibility

            Poor tactics, selection – coach’s responsibility

            As far as I could see, both were issues over the last number of years

          • Shaggy used a great line in an interview about coaching. He was talking about Warren Gatland and he said that although he didn’t really rate Gatland as a technical coach at all, one thing he did really well was ‘create the environment for the players to express themselves’. Declan Kidney, to our eyes, never really did that. Ireland usually looked edgy and tentative in games, and often made a lot of the errors you describe. It was usually once the players found themselves in an all-or-nothing situation that the tension appeared to lift and they could go out and play freely. I would have to question whether Kidney created the environment for them to express themselves.

          • Sound Steve

             /  November 6, 2013

            Very fair point. I personally came to see Kidney as a Benitez-style “cup manager” – able to summon once-off performances but unable to generate any sort of consistency, e.g. France – 2009, England, Australia – 2011, NZ – 2012, Argentina – 2012, Wales 1H – 2013. This is supported by his Munster team as well.

            That said, it’s hard to say how much of this down to the players and how much the management. You mention that players only seemed to throw the shackles off for big games but surely the pressure of big games would be inhibiting? I don’t know… I got the impression that he seemed to be too relaxed rather than too demanding and only when the heat came on was he really able to motivate the players (or the players motivate themselves). If this is the case then Schmidt, who appears to be highly demanding, should do very well!

          • Auric Goldfinger

             /  November 6, 2013

            It’s rather ironic that when Kidney originally got the Ireland job, he was lauded for being a “players” coach, who’s strength was in creating the right environment so the players could thrive.

            Remarkable how that changed so dramatically, especially in the last 18 months

  4. One or two wins would be fantastic, but I am a bit concerned that Schmidt simply hasn’t had enough time to institute his plan, and that Ireland may struggle a lot in these three games. If they don’t win either of the first two, the third is going to look really, really grim, and then it’ll be months before he has the chance to make a second impression. It’s just a bit unfortunate that he has to debut with SUCH a tough series, although of course if he can pull off two wins, it’ll be an excellent springboard.

  5. curates_egg

     /  November 6, 2013

    Hi WOC. You seem to have suggested a few times selecting a (perceived) full strength XV for the Samoa game: why? I cannot for the life of me see why we should go back to Groundhog Day of always finding excuses not to trust our squad, even if there is pressure on Schmidt. After Samoa, there will potentially no chance to start non-XV players until next summer…which is very close to RWC2015.

    To pick one clear example: Sexton needs a rest and Jackson has all the skills to play the gameplan needed to take on Samoa…as well as needing pitch time, which will be hard to come by over the subsequent 8 internationals. Why not give Sexton the rest he needs and bring him back for Aus? It would be nice to have a fired-up Madigan on the bench as an option if the game is open in the final third. I also think, with the way Samoa organise their defense, Jackson would be best served by whichever scrumhalf can give him the quickest possible service from the base. Murray-Sexton is the clear international halfback choice but there seems to be good logic in starting neither versus Samoa.

    Another position in which I think we could think a bit beyond the obvious is hooker. Best will also start against Australia and New Zealand but starting Cronin would seem to be relatively low risk against Samoa and give him much-needed international pitch-time. He could be a good asset with his open-field play and, as far as I know, Samoa does not have a great line-out, so there would be less pressure on him.

    • Len

       /  November 6, 2013

      I’d agree with Curates Samoa is the game to try some of the players who will be the reserve xv or pressing for first team. I’d add to the list of Sexton and Murray with POC and O’Brien. Both are just coming back from injury and not really up to full speed which would leave them open to further injury against what will be a very physical team. Also we have good options for both who need to be given a run at international level. I think given that JS sat out training yesterday we can take it he’s out for Saturday.

    • Yeah, we’re nervous as hell about this game which is probably influencing our thought process, but you make a good point. If POC and Sexton are in any way doubtful, I think you could save them for the next two games, but I wouldn’t go much beyond that. I certainly wouldn’t be leaving Sean O’Brien or Conor Murray – two of our best players if recent form is anything to go by – out of the team.

      • curates_egg

         /  November 6, 2013

        As the erudite Conor George has highlighted ( we have a lot to fear from Samoa. However, I think we and our management should be backing players beyond our ‘first’ XV to take them on. I would have full confidence in other players being able to step up to the plate. If they were to be unsuccessful, we would (in any way) have learnt a lot more than by starting with the already flogged POC and Sexton.

  6. Don

     /  November 6, 2013

    If it’s good enough to beat Samoa, and at least make Australia win the game, that’s about par? Hopefully two wins?
    Am I the only one expecting two wins? We can beat Samoa and the Oz team is pretty rubbish right now. Anything that (very average) English team can do, we can do better.
    The Ozzy’s are unorganized, disheartened and begging to be smashed. So lets stop been a bunch and babies and instead of saying I hope, say we will. Samoa will be a much harder test I think.
    It also galls me how no one is saying anything about beating BNZ. If you walk onto that pitch with anything other than ‘I am going to beat you’ in your mind, you might as well go back home. This game has no place for you.
    Admittedly I don’t think we will beat BNZ, but it does bug me that no one is even raising the possibility.

    • Great post Don, I love your attitude. Like we say, the aussies are there for the taking and if we can play at our best I do thisnk we’ll beat them.

      I certainly expect the players will believe they can beat BNZ but, thankfully, it’s not up to us to walk onto the pitch and take them on with bullish confidence. Indeed, perish the thought…

    • curates_egg

       /  November 6, 2013

      It is nonsense that we are playing 3 higher ranked teams in the Autumn Internationals, which should be used as a platform to try out new combinations and tactics. Whoever fixed this schedule list should be fired.

      I hope we win all 3, think we will 2 but wouldn’t mind if we only won one, whilst showing some kind of progress tactically and getting exposure for 25 players.

    • Steve

       /  November 6, 2013

      Take a look at the unorganized, disheartened Wallabies team which is begging to be smashed and ask yourself, are they worse than we have been for the last couple of years? No, they’re not. We’re all hoping that Joe Schmidt can take the players we all believe are way better than their recent international displays and turn them into a quality team, but that’s not really much different to the job Ewan McKenzie is currently doing.

      I certainly hope the players share your attitude, Don, but we on the sidelines can afford to be a bit more realistic. Schmidt’s a great coach, but he’s not a miracle worker (or maybe he is, fingers crossed eh?), so cautious optimism is the best most of us can manage for the time being.

    • To me it looks like a real lose lose for Schmidt & co – beat Samoa and Australia and rightly most people will be positive, but not overwhelmed. It should be expected to win those two games.

      But, one bad start against Samoa, then a run in with an Aussie team that are a real wounded animal at the mo, desperate for any consolation off the back of a really poor season, new coach etc, and suddenly we’re 0 in 3 and asking hard questions about faces fitting.

  7. Mike

     /  November 6, 2013

    Is it just me or does it piss anyone else off that it is generally accepted that Ireland might be wise to rest Sexton. Playing for Ireland is the pinnacle of anyone’s career. Ireland dont rest players. Players rest in order to be available for Ireland. If he has turned up for training jaded then he isn’t rested, he is dropped in my book. It doesn’t really matter if he has been playing games in France or come straight from a nightclub (well it does a bit… perhaps a nightclub is a bad analogy)…

    The point being that Sexton should have negotiated a contract that entitles him to a weeks rest before returning to international duty. Even if that (god forbid) meant taking a little less money. Otherwise, its fair to say that money matters more than playing for his country.

    • Leaving asides the fact that his presence at training camps outside the international window would indicate Sexton has negotiated extra absences in his contract, and that the only players not playing at the weekend were either playing for teams owned by their national unions (Ireland, Scotland) or whose teams are paid for their release (England), can we please put the Sexton/money thing to bed now?

      Putting asides our heroin-of-the-masses/supporters’ viewpoint for a second: if your boss offers you wages of X, you know a good but inferior colleague is on X+20%, and you are offered X+40% down the road, what do you do?

  8. Mike

     /  November 7, 2013

    But that’s not the choice Sexton had.The extra money and games will effect his international career, and 4 months in we are seeing that.

    Personally, if i could have X+100 caps for Ireland + possible Ireland captaincy + a bigger chance of winning something or X+200% in cash, i’d take the 1st option. That’s my honest answer. Its only when agents get involved that the original X suddenly isn’t enough. If BoD could turn back the clock, hand back 50 Ireland caps or so, go to Biarritz, win fuck all but have an extra £2m in his bank account, I doubt he would.

    But that isn’t even the point I was trying to make. Sexton can do whatever he feels is right for him. He is a class player who probably wasn’t treated all that well by the IRFU. What i was trying to say was that Ireland shouldn’t be considering a player who turns up needing rested. I think that it sends out a terrible message and if you aren’t able (genuine injury aside) to play all three tests to 100% because of other commitments, you shouldn’t be in the squad.

    • curates_egg

       /  November 7, 2013

      We should not be using the Autumn Internationals to start our first XV in every game. Please, please can we move on from this totally flawed perception of test match rugby, which has held the international side back from performing on the one real world stage in rugby.

      • Mike

         /  November 8, 2013

        I’m not saying that. Nothing wrong with testing out new combinations and young players. The game against Fiji last year was a real breath of fresh air.

        If Sexton was still at Leinster and had played half the games, i think there would still be a good case for not playing him (Paddy Jackson can expect a few brutal hits).

        I just don’t like players being rested because they have turned up unfit to play (or at least the acceptance that this is ok if it is the case).

    • You’re absolutely right about playing in France affecting his international career – assuming he misses Saturday, you have proof of this in the very first international after he left Leinster. But the idea that we should drop one of our best players because of this, is, frankly, nuts. The message that would send out is that the IRFU is more concerned about Stepford-esque levels of control over the players than it is about getting the best 15 on the pitch as often as possible, whatever constraints they are working under.

      • Mike

         /  November 8, 2013

        I guess what I really want is for SoB not to go to France!

        If the other guys in the team see Sexton go, take the money and the Ireland camp rest him then they are more incentivised to go. If they see that there are meaningful consequences, for taking the money and not being fit to play then they will realise that they are better staying put – albeit on lower pay.

        I really fear the situation in a year or so if SoB, Murray, Healy and say Luke Marshall are all in France and are needing rested already.

  9. Bueller

     /  November 7, 2013

    Schmidt has shown his hand – he’s still on the Leinster pay-roll!

    • Nice trolling Bueller! Am putting on my helmet and flak jacket, crouching in my foxhole, and nervously scanning the horizon for Leinster Lion in his LaighinUberMumhanPanzerWagen.

  10. as has been commented by many posters, this is actually the first Irish match I’ve looked forward to (instead of dreaded) for years. Here’s to an era of picking right teams, bringing through some youth (and not because 5 players in his position are injured), and playing a gameplan that utilizes some of our genuinely gifted players.Who knows..maybe we’ll even score in a second half some day!

    We’ve seen what bog standard teams have been doing to Australia the past few months..a loss would be a massive failure in my eyes. I think Samoa are a much tougher test. They’ll have been targeting us for months while I’d imagine Australia just want to get through this series and put their awful season to bed. I’m happy with the initial team selection though I feel our back 3 doesn’t look great. Hopefully Jared Payne and Luke Fitz will be there for RWC15…

    I’m particularly looking forward to see how Heaslip gets on. He’s been in flying form since last April and the absence of SOB will free him up from his usual shit-shovelling duties to get his hands on the ball and show what a good attacking player and linkman he is.


  11. jojo

     /  November 7, 2013

    eh, now he’ll have to do more donkey work cos POM will be hanging on the wings or waiting for the next inconsequential scuffle

  12. There’s a good possibility of that but hopefully Schmidt doesn’t indulge him like Kidney did. POM will be fully aware that Schmidt likes McLaughlin and Jennings so he might just stop his messing altogether and concentrate on playing rugby

  13. POM made 19 tackles in his last game. But don’t let facts get in the way of your caricature.

    • Mike

       /  November 8, 2013

      Didn’t see the game so no idea if he played well or not. Just a general point – 19 tackles is a meaningless stat. Dragging the catcher of the ball at a lineout to ground counts as a tackle.

      He could also be making tackles because he is standing at outhalf and not doing his main job properly.

      When you look at the stats, its 19 tackles, conceded 2 penalties and ran for 12 yards. But again, as i said, these stats are meaningless. For all i know, the 2 pens might have saved 2 tries, and the 12 yards might have been the most important 12 yards in the game. Its just noise without context.

      • No. It is, in practical terms, impossible to make 19 tackles while “hanging on the wings”. If you think otherwise, you’ve never seen or played in a rugby match.

  14. Rich

     /  November 8, 2013

    What could Schmidt have done?

    The flaws in our team were never addressed by our previous coach. No front row were ever given a go same with locks. Who else could he have picked? Toner deserves a go and we need someone to call the lineout anyway – good luck to he boy. Would like to see Madigan get a go, Jackson kicking has been poor again this season. Samoa are a good side, they put 40 on Italy earlier in he year so can play, Schmidt factor will get us a win though…..

    Aus in an odd position, Genia and Horwil been way off form and expecting both to be dropped by the time we play them. Falou probably the best player in the world right now so will be good to get a win.

    • Hmm. Jackson’s playing every week, Madigan isn’t. Jackson has his failings, but so does Madigan: he was absolute muck the last few times he played against Connacht, and if we can repeatedly and successfully target him…

      Himself and Kilcoyne are starting to starting to sound like the local GAA star’s absent brother – you know him, the one with all the potential who should have played county – in that the less they play the better they seem to get in supporters’ eyes. .

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