Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Joe Schmidt Test Era : from box-ticking to box-kicking


First of all I’d like to thank all of those who offered their best wishes during my recent hospital stay.  The only reason I reference it here is that when I first went in to A&E, Ireland were just about to kickoff their final World Cup match against Samoa, and the day after I was discharged, we played the All Blacks in the quarterfinals. Maybe I could have done writeups on those matches later when I was feeling better, but I chose not to - hopefully this piece will work instead.


Over the years I have been accused of being overly-apologetic towards both Leinster and Ireland through periods of poor results.  I accept this criticism mostly because I try to write as a fan rather than a supposedly impartial pundit. That said, I often find myself trying to push back against it because I often firmly believe it’s not so much a case of my goggles being covered blue or green, rather others’ being covered in something with a much more unpleasant colour (not to mention odour) altogether.


There can be no denying that Ireland’s 2019 campaign in Japan, and in turn Joe Schmidt’s tenure, ended in bitter disappointment.  There also can be no denying that the prime directive of anyone taking the reigns of the Irish team would be to take us to the Holy Grail of the World Cup semifinals.  And despite having two cracks at it, Joe was unable to tick that particular box. Plus, it doesn’t help that after humbling us, the All Blacks went on to be humbled by England, who went on to be humbled in the final by South Africa, who were supposedly the quarterfinal opponents we would have preferred.


Yet while the frustration of Irish fans at crashing out so badly was understandable, it was so only to a point, and several comments went well beyond that point.  To give just one of hundreds of examples along the same vein from the ruggersphere, I really got annoyed when I read that somehow “Joe’s legacy is now in tatters”...


Remember, these are views coming from Irish fans, or supporters, or whatever you prefer to call them.  This choice (and it is definitely a choice) to reach for the outermost extremes is clearly a demonstration of some kind of personal bias on the part of the commenters.  Maybe they only watch rugby occasionally and just don’t know enough about the subject. Or maybe they prefer another sport and would take any excuse to have a pop at egg-chasing.  Or maybe they ARE rugby fans but are more interested in attacking Joe because of his previous association with Leinster, much as many did to Declan Kidney back in the day because of his association with Munster (both mindsets are equally real and childish IMO).

What I would like to do with this article is try to redress the balance by pushing beyond the effects of Joe’s most recent results and instead look at all of them during his time in charge.  I’m going to list them in chronological order, offering a few thoughts as I go plus a summary at the very end.

SUMMER TOUR 2013 (same time as 2013 Lions tour to Aus)

Apparently Joe wasn't directly involved in this tour yet it's worth including nonetheless.

NOVEMBER 2013

Obviously the standout match there was against New Zealand, and this is where the abuse from so-called ‘Irish fans’ began.  Never mind that we played scintillating rugby to go 19-0 up against a team we had never beaten before; the fact that the reigning World Champions had the cheek to fight back and pinch a victory at the death was unforgivable.  Yes, of course it was frustrating to lose the lead, especially right at the end, but given this was Joe’s first series at this level, if you couldn't see positives to take forward, you just weren’t looking.

SIX NATIONS 2014 - CHAMPIONS

First Six Nations, first title.  Yet many were churning out the rubbish that ‘it only counts if it’s a Slam’.  There were six nations, we finished first. Of course the defeat in Twickenham was disappointing, but after all the trophies he brought to Leinster, Joe now also had one for Ireland before he was a year in the job. One extra challenge was added to the pile during this series however, namely the need to bring the team beyond the BOD era.

SUMMER TOUR 2014 - ARGENTINA (series win, 2-0)

NOVEMBER 2014 (3 wins out of 3)

All in all an extremely successful 2014.  How could Ireland ever improve on that?

SIX NATIONS 2015 - CHAMPIONS

Back to back titles or yet another Grand Slam failure?  You decide.

WORLD CUP WARMUPS 2015

All of the sceptics were out in force after the two defeats, despite all that had gone before, but overall Ireland were going into the World Cup in a positive frame of mind, with the new centre pairing comprising the seemingly unlikely duo of Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne, both previously known as full backs.

RWC2015

That Argentina result/performance was like a bolt from the sky blue, though it certainly didn’t help that we went into that match missing so many front line players.  When the post mortems were done on the campaign there seemed to be a consensus that we needed to bring a much deeper squad to Japan in 2019.

SIX NATIONS 2016

Three Six Nations titles in a row would have been quite the achievement (though not enough for some of course) but it does need to be said that the defeat in Paris in particular was disappointing.  Joe needed to knuckle down with his squad to wash the World Cup woes away.

SUMMER TOUR 2016 (incl first test win on RSA soil)

This tour was like a microcosm of the Joe Schmidt era.  Disappointing end, yet we still ticked an historic box along the way with our first ever test win on South African soil.

NOVEMBER 2016 (incl first ever win v All Blacks)

As if the Springbok success wasn’t enough, we now had Chicago, where all the negative energy from that previous encounter was re-polarized into a comprehensive victory that even the most curmudgeonly supporter couldn’t disparage.  The All Blacks did get back at us a couple of weeks later however, thus providing another sting in the tail for our success.

SIX NATIONS 2017

Preventing an English Slam was scant consolation after bad results in Edinburgh and Cardiff, though we weren’t complaining on the day.

SUMMER TOUR 2017 (during Lions tour to NZ)

It seemed like a good idea to bring the non-Lions to Japan to get somewhat acclimatized ahead of 2019, although it was at a different time of year plus some of the tourists never ended up going like Devin Toner and John Cooney.  Still, 3 comfortable wins from 3 wasn’t a bad outcome.

NOVEMBER 2017 (3 wins out of 3)

Some saw this series as a roaring success because of the massive win over the Springboks; others weren’t happy with the narrow win over Fiji.  But neither opinion was to stay relevant for long.

SIX NATIONS 2018 (GRAND SLAM CHAMPIONS)

Can you believe there were still a few negative comments after this campaign?  I can. ‘We were lucky in Paris’. I ask you. The bulk of us managed to enjoy it, mind.

SUMMER TOUR 2018 (1st ever SH series win)

‘Ah sure it was only Australia’.  ‘We should have won all three tests’.  ‘When you add up the scores the teams actually finished level’.  Again, all quotes from Irish sources. Well, I saw it as a southern hemisphere series win and another thing that couldn’t be taken away from Joe’s legacy.

NOVEMBER 2018 (4 wins out of 4, incl All Blacks again)

Capping off the best calendar year for Irish rugby ever.

SIX NATIONS 2019

No question this was a disappointment.  Of course criticism was coming from the nay-sayers, but to be fair, it was coming from all Irish fans especially with regard to the performance against England.  When it came to Wales they were at least pumped up chasing a Slam in front of their home crowd.

WORLD CUP WARMUPS 2019

RWC2019
IRELAND-47 SAMOA-5
NEW ZEALAND-46 IRELAND-14

The most recent results are all a bit raw, but you won’t see me defending too many of our performances in 2019.

I have mostly focused on results up to now, mostly because I want to draw attention to the many positive boxes Ireland have ticked with Joe Schmidt in charge.  Back to back titles. Win in South Africa. Victory over New Zealand Grand Slam. Series win in Australia.  Yes, OK, I suppose I can even throw in the #1 world ranking.

Yet when it comes to the negatives, one thing the detractors like to focus on is actual tactics, and two seemed to be at the top of the critical pile - box-kicking and narrow defense, and I would like to make a case for both.

When it comes to the narrow defense, everyone seemed to be an expert when it came to analyzing tries where we were beaten in the widest channel, yet when the commitment of extra bodies close to the breakdown actually led to attacks being snuffed out, which happened often, the critics were suddenly silent.

As for the box-kicking, in 2014 I had the privilege of attending an Irish training session at Carton House and at one stage Joe broke away from the group along with Gordon D’Arcy, Tommy Bowe and Robbie Henshaw to explain the virtues of it. 

Before then I always assumed a box kick was almost like a ‘Hail Mary’ pass in American football in that we’re just putting it up there because we have no other options. Joe made it clear that with the right accuracy this could actually be a powerful weapon and even if the ball couldn’t be caught, with a decent chase the opposition can still be thrown on the back foot resulting in a turnover anyway. 

The most ironic thing about the box-kick debate is that it was a tactic oft used this year by the Springboks, who I seem to recall have been doing pretty well on the trophy front in recent months.

So is there ANYTHING that Joe got wrong?  Of course there is. In my opinion he might have been a bit over zealous in his desire to control the squad.  The extra training sessions outside test windows, the restriction of minutes in the Celtic League, the refusal to consider players who left the four provinces who weren’t named Sexton.  While I appreciate the problems that he was trying to solve with those policies, perhaps the solutions were a bit too extreme.

I also do have tactical concerns despite what I said earlier, although it was in more of a general scope.  The premise always seemed to be that once we play a certain way to a test-level standard of accuracy, we should win.  The problem is that despite professional rugby being in its third decade of existence, it is still very much an evolving product.  Both Laws and coaching philosophies are changing at a rapid pace which means it doesn’t augur well to keep your head down assuming your own way of doing things is going to work no matter what way the opposition plays.

While it was clear that we needed a deeper squad in 2019 than we had in 2015 and there can be no denying that Joe ticked that box, I fear our 2018 success may have alerted the rest of the world to coming up with a formula for beating us, one for which we had no antidote.

But let me make one thing abundantly clear to conclude this article.  Joe Schmidt left Irish rugby in a far better state than it was when he found it.  No amount of disingenuous negative narratives can take away from that fact, and as frustrating as the ridiculous comments may have been over the years, I can only assume that the vast majority of real Irish fans are extremely grateful for all he has done and wish him nothing but the best for the future.  JLP

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