How Ireland can reinvigorate Six Nations title hopes
Changes made in Belfast for Italian clash will be vital come the Paris decider,writes Ruaidhri O’Connor
MINUTES after Saturday's defeat to England, Joe Schmidt emerged from the dressing-room to begin the public part of the inquest and was asked to point out what had gone wrong for Ireland.
The coach's eyebrow arched and he turned the negative into a positive, replying: "I could probably pinpoint a number of things that went right..."
This wasn't pure deflection from the New Zealander, because perhaps the most frustrating thing about the loss was that so much had gone to plan, yet they had come away empty-handed from the first away game of his tenure.
One of the great challenges Schmidt faces as Ireland coach is achieving the standards of accuracy his Leinster team managed during his trophy-laden three-year spell.
He is now trying to unlock better defences with less time to prepare, to drill his moves and to ultimately execute. In a match where the official statistics showed his side had dominated territory and possession, it was a disappointment that they could not take their chances.
It is worth remembering that Schmidt is just six games into his tenure as Ireland coach and the progress made since he took over has been overwhelmingly positive.
This time 12 months ago, Ireland were reeling from the defeat to Scotland at Murrayfield and Declan Kidney was preparing to end Ronan O'Gara's international career; in that light, a three-point defeat to England in London and a championship tilt still very much on track doesn't seem so bad.
Schmidt was clearly unhappy with some matters outside his control on Saturday evening, particularly a series of poor decisions by referee Craig Joubert that went against Ireland, but, when he sat down and watched the video ahead of the squad reassembling for the Belfast camp this morning, the coach will have had plenty to digest.
It was revealing to note that, after keeping both Scotland and Wales tryless in 160 minutes of rugby, it was the defence – in particular the first-up tackle – that Schmidt felt Ireland needed most improvement ahead of last weekend's game.
And you would imagine he wasn't entirely happy with the effort at Twickenham either as the English back-three routinely beat the first man when countering – the hosts' try came from a fractured line that Chris Robshaw and Mike Brown brilliantly exploited for Danny Care to touch down.
Ireland relied on Peter O'Mahony's proficiency on the ground when Scotland and Wales made a break, but the flanker couldn't get near the English ball and, had Stuart Lancaster's side spotted the clear overlaps available on two occasions, things could have been very different.
It is clear that the Irish management are sceptical of the official statistics provided by the tournament organisers and rely on their own, but the count of 21 tackles missed must be a worry.
"Despite those numbers showing nine points against and no tries, this is still a huge challenge for us to get in front of the things that will hurt us later in this tournament if we don't get them right," defence coach Les Kiss said last week, and he will be looking to address those issues before Italy and, ultimately, France.
Much of the focus of the post-match discussion focused on Ireland's kicking game and, while it was far from perfect, it was not as costly as some may feel.
It was similar to the aftermath of the defeat to New Zealand last November, when fans complained about Conor Murray's loose box-kick, even though that effort did not contribute directly to Ireland's downfall as they regathered the ball and looked set for home until Nigel Owens' decision to penalise Jack McGrath and the submissive defending that followed.
Saturday saw Johnny Sexton – who seemed to be carrying an injury, but was given the all-clear on Monday – try a chip and chase from his own '22' and kick a restart dead, but neither mistake was directly to blame for English points. Both kicks helped shift the momentum, but the gaps appeared elsewhere.
Late on, a visibly tired Sexton did try a chip through that bounced back off Jonny May, but there were a series of loose passes that cost far more.
Accuracy will come from time together
That brings us to the kernel of Ireland's problem last weekend. Having bullied Scotland and Wales, Schmidt devised a plan to go around the huge England pack and centres that relied on a high level of skill and accuracy.
The incident the coach lamented publicly was Andrew Trimble's delay in getting the ball down to Rob Kearney from Sexton's perfectly placed first-half cross-kick, saying: "We rehearsed it, you know what you want to do, the players know their roles and you don't quite get the result."
However, he could also have identified three moments in those desperate last 10 minutes when chasing the game: Brian O'Driscoll's wrap-around failed to connect with Sexton, who would have had an overlap had he caught the pass; Murray's inside ball to Fergus McFadden that was nowhere near coming off; and when Sean Cronin knocked on trying to free his hands in the tackle.
Sexton's earlier marginally forward cut-out pass to Dave Kearney was another moment where the margin for error was fine but the reward would have been huge, while there were the lucky bounces that saw Mike Brown drop the
ball, which hopped up into May's hand and the goalkeeper save that prevented a real problem for England.
After two weeks of simple rugby, Schmidt attempted to take things to another level and Ireland weren't far away from delivering.
That the try was mostly made by Leinster players emphasised the issue of the time needed to produce these intricate moves at the highest level.
Execution doesn't look far away, but Ireland need to take advantage of every available minute together.
Options from the bench
When Sexton's chip came off May's legs and the English poured through, the out-half looked out on his feet.
Similarly, Murray looked tired for much of the last 10 minutes after, like Sexton, making a big contribution to the defensive effort.
But Paddy Jackson and Isaac Boss remained in their tracksuits until the 79th minute, with the Ulster fly-half replacing the injured O'Driscoll and taking his place on the wing.
If the coaching team truly trusted the options available, you would imagine both would have been on earlier.
One wondered had Eoin Reddan been fully fit and Ian Madigan been given more game-time with Leinster, would they have gotten more of a chance.
The first three replacements – Marty Moore, McFadden and Iain Henderson – all made a positive impact, but the rest didn't have the time.
Perhaps the Italy game is a chance to bring some of those seen as cover players up to speed, while the summer tour to Argentina definitely will; but in an endurance test like Saturday, Ireland didn't appear to give themselves the best chance of taking the victory needed to secure the Triple Crown.
Resourcing the ruck
Schmidt was unhappy with England's body positions at the breakdown, but also admitted that Ireland needed more numbers at times.
Partly, it was down to the players going off piste to find gaps in the white defensive wall and getting isolated, and the likes of Chris Robshaw and Joe Launchbury were O'Mahony-like on the deck, but turnovers halted Irish momentum.
As Shane Horgan pointed out, sometimes it is up to your own players to police the ruck and Ireland failed to do that.
Italy will provide a testing ground to improve and, if Ireland can replicate the intensity and bring on the accuracy, then they will be in a good place come the expected title tilt on March 15 in Paris.