Friday 19 July 2019

No passion - no belief: Schmidt’s team must bounce back against Scots in Edinburgh

Ireland 20 England 32

LATE HIT: Maro Itoje of England collides with Keith Earls of Ireland during the Guinness Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
LATE HIT: Maro Itoje of England collides with Keith Earls of Ireland during the Guinness Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

You could feel it in the air the day New Zealand came to Dublin last November. It was one-versus-two in the world rankings.

Even though there were no points or prizes on the table, it mattered more than most of the matches in our history.

It meant, for once, Ireland could legitimately lay claim to being the best, simply by beating the best. The atmosphere around that occasion was such that the Ireland players simply couldn't escape it.

They had no choice - not that they would have wanted one - they had to perform.

The same eyeballs-out intensity was not there long before Owen Farrell's kick-off at the Aviva on Saturday evening.

The same atmosphere did not flow down from the stands for Ireland-versus-England. There were reasons for that.

No doubt

You could have scoured the island from Malin Head to Mizen Head to Carnsore Point and you would not have found a person to doubt Ireland.

There is also an unwritten, even unspoken sense, that the more relaxed the interviews in Carton House, the more likely Ireland are to lose their laser- focus. And the players were open and relaxed last week out in 'The Bubble.'

The Irish laughed off the "verbal grenades" that came their way looking to defuse, instead of explode an irrelevant side issue.

Well, this was no laughing matter. England spent twice as long in Portugal as Ireland and they played twice as well, too.

Everyone was led to believe this was not the dominant, record-equalling England of two years ago, the one hunting down an inevitable Grand Slam.

It was England in rehabilitation, rebuilding, rebooting, recovering from what had been a slippery slope, right up until November.

It turns out this version could be even better than their predecessors because they are wiser and have come through some adversity in the last year.

"There is a danger they will get better," warned Schmidt. "They are playing really well to the limit.

"It makes it very suffocating and they've got the firepower."

When Ireland are at their best, it is impossible to mistake their identity.

It is right there in the insistence on winning that first step, the refusal to take a backward one.

When they do not find the right pitch to their performance, the price to pay can be as heavy as Billy Vunipola.

"There is always a risk of having slow starts when you first get guys together because it is never quite as cohesive as you would like it to be," reflected Schmidt.

The same heaving, gripping passion that poured out of Ireland for the All Blacks just wasn't there for the All Whites.

Schmidt could feel it even before a ball was kicked in anger, or frustration.

He wanted to sense the energy that comes with the guaranteed Irish label.

"I didn't sense it, I didn't feel it," he said. "You almost get this vibrancy from the group and we didn't quite have it."

Even Schmidt cannot provide all the answers, all at once.

"It is disappointing and it is difficult to put your finger on exactly what it was,

"But we are talking about human beings here," he said.

"There is emotional energy that needs to be switched on collectively.

Very hard

"It is very hard if that is not quite present, to suddenly generate it, if it does not begin at the very start.

"I am not sure quite why but is disappointing that we did not have that same vibrancy that we normally do have.

"If you don't have those energy levels and have that mental preparation done, it is pretty difficult to get a foothold back into the game.''

Strangely, the last time Ireland began so bluntly was two years ago in Edinburgh.

"For us, the last time we went to Murrayfield, we didn't get off the bus and we were 21-5 down at half-time,'' said Schmidt.

"On the back of that experience, we ended up beating England at the end of that Six Nations and getting second.

"I think it would be a little bit of a knee-jerk reaction to believe, on the back of one poor performance, we've suddenly lost all the progress and all the confidence we've tried to build over the last number of years."

Now, Schmidt will have to gather the troops together to take a flat-pack of men and build them back up into what they have been.

The Grand Slam is gone. Even the Triple Crown is out. The big prizes are off the table.

How much is this a mental challenge to be met in Scotland?

"I think you are dead right right. It is a mental challenge," he said.

"There are a lot of guys hurting at the moment. They will be looking for a way back in.

"I think the only way back in is to roll their sleeves up, show that resilience mentally that we are going to be have to be able demonstrate next Saturday.

"It's not just about physically getting up and having that vibrancy.

"It is about mentally being attuned and ready to go and retaining the confidence that we should have.

"As I have said, we are human and there are times that human beings can become complacent.

"If you assume anything in this world of high-performance sport, assumption will undo you.

"We couldn't assume we could rock up and just deliver a performance that they would accept.

"They accepted nothing from us and gave us as little as possible.

"And that's a credit to them."

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