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Wednesday 7 December 2016

Brent Pope: Ireland will never play like Leinster

Tommy Bowe during squad training at Ballsbridge, Dublin
Tommy Bowe during squad training at Ballsbridge, Dublin

Don't expect Ireland to play like Leinster when the province was in its pomp.

When Joe Schmidt first took over at Leinster rugby, he instantly recognised what they had and what they didn't have, which is the mark of a great coach.

He looked at the physicality of the English and French packs, and thought: we don't have the players that can match that week in, week out so how do we beat them? Answer: by becoming the best passing and off-loading side in Europe, and by moving the big packs around the park at pace with changes of pace and angles.

Rumour has it that some of the Leinster handling drills were carried out with eggs rather than leather balls to develop soft hands. Whether that is true or not, Leinster played an amazing brand of expansive rugby, still the envy of Europe.

The problem is that people expect Ireland to play this way as well, but it's not always possible. Simply because Schmidt usually only as a few weeks to mould four different styles of play from four different provinces together. As well as that, he has different skill sets from individuals within that same group. He also had his chief playmaker Jonathan Sexton in France for the past two seasons.

It is true that Ireland won back-to-back Six Nations titles playing with a pretty simple game plan, but in fairness they played it exceptionally well. Schmidt makes no bones about the fact that he is a stickler for getting the basics right and then perfecting a disciplined, controlled approach. Last week, we saw Ireland use their kicking game which had worked so brilliantly against England last year, but last weekend it failed, mainly because Sexton is not quite at his best yet (understandable with just two warm-up matches under his belt).

Also, more significantly, England had learnt how to deal with the aerial assault by instructing their back three to stay on the ground rather than make it a 50/50 contest in the air.

Ireland has aerial supremacy on most teams they play, why? Because it has at least four or five players in its backline that are not only tall physically but who have played at full-back at some stage in their career. The likes of Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Simon Zebo, Keith Earls and Jared Payne are all masters of the kick-and-chase game.

Chasing

Last week, Ireland's kicks out of hand were slightly over-cooked while the chasing part of it, Dave Kearney apart, was slightly under-cooked, especially from the usually consistent Ulster winger Tommy Bowe.

For some reason, Bowe looked to have lost some of his old zip in the warm-up games and one hopes it just a blip as over the years Bowe has been one of the outstanding kick-chasers in the world game. Will Ireland's kicking game be employed again this RWC? Of course it will, but hopefully with a little more accuracy and more effective chasers. After all, the All Blacks probably kick the ball more than most teams, but they always do it with a high success rate of return in either getting the ball back or gaining huge chunks of territory.

The Irish team is not going to become an all passing, all offloading side that the Leinster team was; for starters, they do not have the experience and passing skills of the likes of Brian O'Driscoll, Ica Nacewa or Gordon D'Arcy.

Irish centre Robbie Henshaw is a supreme athlete, but still had to develop the passing skills and defence organisation that comes with a protracted playing time in that position, while Kiwi centre Payne needs to be more vocal and use his vast experience more in leading the Irish midfield defence line.

Do I think Ireland has a lot more in the locker? Yes, there are plenty of positives despite the back-to-back losses.

Ireland were flat and not completely at full strength, yet could have still won both games with a bit of luck. Ireland's set pieces of scrum, lineout and maul are very good and fringe players like Dave Kearney and Iain Henderson are placing serious pressure on the incumbents for a starting spot.

Concerns do remain, however, about a lack of creative spark from the midfield in terms of try-scoring opportunities, and that there are too many missed first-up tackles

But that just requires better focus - the players already have the skills. In the aftermath of last week's loss, a lot of media pundits were calling for a change in style for the upcoming RWC, and while long term that might be an option the old cliché - if it isn't broke, why fix it? - might apply here.

Ireland's game plan was a good enough to defeat all the major rugby nations bar the All Blacks in the last two years; it just needs a little oil here and there, that's all.

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