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Six Nations Scotland v Ireland: Joe Schmidt's tactics are on the line


Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt

?INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt

For Joe Schmidt, this week will have been a fingernails-on-the-blackboard ordeal. His team is too narrow, too predictable, we say. Four tries in four games, two from lineout mauls, one a referee's sanction. Now that the Grand Slam has been forsaken, gloom seems to be spreading like an oil-slick.

Even if, somehow, the Championship is retained today, the grumble is it will be bleached of something precious. As a former winger, the charges against him must seem galling. No depth to the attack. No imagination. No smart game-management.

Schmidt's teams have always been defined by intelligence in possession but, against Wales, Ireland resembled bulls charging against a red gable wall.

When he first came here, what most struck Leinster's players was Schmidt's forensic approach to untangling an opposition defence. He applied his theories by running individual plays with relentless repetition on the training ground. Until and unless, execution was perfect - Schmidt would not move on.

The players grew to love this stubbornness because, in time, it gave them certainty. When the coach sold them a new play, he did it with every ounce of his being.

Yet, in Wales, Ireland's territorial dominance was corrupted by all of the viruses that Schmidt coaches so actively against. Imprecision, impatience, 'white-line fever', panic.

It means that four games into this Six Nations, the defending champions have had the fewest clean breaks of all the contestants (two fewer than Italy even) and scored the fewest tries (equal with France on four).

With three victories out of four, it's not quite a return to the grim arithmetic of the 1990s (when Ireland lost all four Five Nations games in '92 and winger Simon Geoghegan went the entire Championship without receiving an attacking pass).

Yet, there is a sense that - tactically - the team has, perhaps, become one-dimensional. That, having scored 16 tries en route to the title last spring, they have been re-shod from a thoroughbred into a dray horse.

Schmidt was, palpably, offended by some of the post-match questioning last Saturday, detecting in it a lack of appreciation for this being Ireland's first Test defeat in 11.

On his watch, we have beaten all of the heavyweights of world rugby now, bar New Zealand. Johnny Sexton describes him as "the best coach I've known", while Brian O'Driscoll says that he has never encountered one with a "smarter rugby brain".

On Thursday, Schmidt addressed the issue of Ireland's diminishing try returns.

"One of the frustrations from last week is that we did create, in our reckoning, three really clear try-scoring opportunities that we didn't convert," he said.

"Last year, we converted a lot of our try-scoring opportunities. They are very fine margins.

"One week you might score three tries and the next week you might not get any and you might have played better.

"We were incredibly frustrated and disappointed with those first 15-20 minutes against Wales. But, take those out, we dominated the game.

"There were parts of that game where we played some of our best rugby in the Championship and parts where we played some of our worst.

"Unfortunately, the period that was our worst gave them a 12-point head start."

Murrayfield presents a potentially defining point of intersection for the Schmidt regime now.

The machine-like aura that Ireland had been acquiring has, suddenly, come undone. Defeat changes things.

For Ireland, the enemy today isn't Scotland. It's the threat of losing nerve.

Further reading

Belfast Telegraph