Wednesday 13 December 2017

Green Army must be patient

Control of basics will see Irish into semi-finals

Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw leaves France’s Mathieu Bastareaud in his slipstream in last weekend’s World Cup Pool D clash at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw leaves France’s Mathieu Bastareaud in his slipstream in last weekend’s World Cup Pool D clash at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

While the rugby world appropriately paid tribute to the untimely international retirement of the great Paul O'Connell, Irish coach Joe Schmidt knew that he could not let these sidebars detract from his mission of beating Argentina this weekend, and therefore taking Ireland into uncharted waters, their first ever semi-final in the history of the RWC.

In a week riddled with sombre news, Schmidt must use the unfortunate injuries/suspension of O'Connell, Peter O'Mahony, Jarrod Payne, Seán O'Brien and possibly Johnny Sexton as ammunition to re-motivate his team.

He will be appealing to those Irish players who did such a remarkable job off the bench last week to again deliver for their injured team-mates, and to seize their opportunity.

Those replacement players have now set a benchmark, and Schmidt will not allow them to drop those standards, in fact those standards are now the new norm.

O'Connell will be obviously missed, after all he is more than just an extraordinary player, and was an extraordinary captain as well.

He is what I would describe in business and war as an "over the trench type of leader" - a man that others will follow despite the mounting odds, and a man that always leads by example both on and off the pitch.

O'Connell called most of Irelands lineouts, called most of the significant forward plays on the field and made a lot of key decisions at crucial times. A perfect mixture brain and brawn.

Even when O'Connell was not the official match-day captain everybody still knew who the real boss was.

Everybody in the world of rugby was saddened at the way he was forced to retire his Irish jersey, and it was not what he deserved, but O'Connell knows more than anyone that this is a team game and the show must go on, he also realises that Ireland have won nothing yet.

Schmidt must also have to do without O'Mahony, possibly Ireland's most impressive player over the pool games. And while O'Brien will be disappointed to miss Sunday's clash with Argentina due to suspension, in my opinion he can also consider himself fortunate to just get a one-week sit-out period.

Despite being unsportingly held back by French lock Pascal Pape the disciplinary committee usually takes a dim view on such retaliation regardless of what went before, and the entry level for such a blow is a minimum of two weeks.

Granted Pape milked it Oscar style, but thankfully O'Brien's exemplary record has allowed him to be ready for a possible game against Australia in the semi-finals - that's if an injury ravaged Ireland can just hold the rudder straight for another week.

The IRFU would, in my opinion, have been foolish to contest the decision on appeal especially after what happened to the Scottish duo of Ross Ford and Johnny Gray who pleaded not guilty and were given three weeks. Of course, Schmidt also awaits news on Sexton's injury, and I doubt that he will be fully fit and may be asked to wait another week.

Luckily Ireland are not as over-reliant of just 15 players anymore. This Irish team has serious strength in depth, and the way that players like Ian Madigan, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry and others stepped up last week and paved the way for Ireland's fantastic win proved there is not a lot of difference between some selections any more.

In fact rather than slide into their shell in the second half, as many may have expected, Ireland actually became more dominant as the game went on, and that was testament to the fact that this is a galvanised squad rather than just a group of individuals.

Schmidt has always maintained that at any one time his players must be able make the step up and play to his patterns and structures, and to be honest if you look at the last two Six Nations Championships the incoming players have always performed well.

There is a thin line between some selections anyway. Chris Henry was outstanding last year in O'Brien's absence before he suffered his untimely injury, likewise the recalled Leinster flanker Rhys Ruddock. While Iain Henderson will now be asked to fill O'Connell's hefty boots for the future.


Unlike 2007 when no fringe players were allowed the opportunity to show what they had to offer, these 2015 players are now showing the value of at least feeling that they are an integral part of a squad environment, and it's not a 'them versus us' situation.

Everybody is fighting for a starting position, and that creates a winning atmosphere and a lack of complacency.

I feel that Ireland have too much class for Argentina in almost all areas of the park. Everybody is talking up Argentina as being one of the most improved teams in this tournament but is that really the case, or an assessment just based on their opening day first-half performance against the All Blacks?

Let's analyse that game. The All Blacks spent 20 minutes with two men in the sin-bin and were well under-par anyway, yet despite all that the Kiwis still managed to dominate most of the second-half territory and possession and win with room to spare.

Yes, Argentina have been impressive against the other minnows, but they have not been really tested as yet, have they? They have been able to throw the ball about and off-load at will because, like Ireland in their earlier games, the space has been there and the opposition defences have been brave but weak. They will face a much sterner test against Ireland.

Argentina also have a poor enough lineout with little in the way of genuine height along the line. With Devin Toner, Henderson and Heaslip able to exert plenty of pressure on the Pumas ball, as they did against France, Madigan or Sexton will be asked to play a kicking game, and force the ball in behind the Argentine pack, then to put pressure on the Pumas set phase ball.

Under consultant ex-All Black coach Graham Henry, the Argentinians have certainly embraced a wider aspect to their play, and are no longer considered just a ten-man scrummaging-based unit but in my opinion they are still learning to play that way after years of a different culture.

They have benefited enormously from the Southern Hemisphere competition despite failing to win many games, and in outhalf Juan Martin Hernandez they certainly possess a player who can change a game in a heart beat. But they will miss their experienced English-based centre Marcello Bosch (suspended) and have an ageing enough looking backrow and a vastly inferior lineout and restart game.

If Ireland can just replicate last week's aggression and patience in building the phases, plus their greater emphasis on doing the basics well, then I have a good feeling that Ireland will win.

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