Schmidt strives to recover cohesion in disappointing Ireland

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

By Phil Rice

Speaking after Ireland’s under-whelming performance in Italy two weeks ago, head coach Joe Schmidt, spoke of the need for his team to regain “continuity and cohesion.” He talked of disruptions through early injuries in matches and enforced changes and their disrupting effects.

Since then he has tried to create disruptive training sessions to get his team accustomed to overcoming these distractions. It demonstrates the coach’s exhaustive efforts to ‘right the ship’ after what has been a thoroughly disjointed and disappointing Six Nations campaign to date.

Just three months after Ireland were being hailed as ‘the form team in world rugby’ they find themselves trying to rediscover the form that made them such a formidable side during 2018.

Pundits have dissected the three performances to date and come up with a variety of explanations for the team’s disappointing showings in 2019.

 

Most have focussed on the unexpected dip in form of the half-backs. Johnny Sexton, who was voted ‘World player of 2018,’ has cut a forlorn figure during these matches, shouting at his teammates and scolding them for errors.

Meanwhile his own form has left much to be desired.

For a half-back partnership to perform well, both players must work in tandem and in-tune with each other. Conor Murray’s poor form has clearly affected his partner. Although Murray has made no reference to his ongoing neck injury, it is clearly a major factor in his current disappointing form.

Noted for his hugely committed approach, historically pulling off last-ditch tackles on countless occasions to save his country, he has barely made a defensive back-field tackle during the Six Nations to date.

 

His hurried box kicking and erratic passing demonstrate his concern to avoid taking late hits from over eager opponents.

It would seem that these uncharacteristic failings are the result of a player who is anxious to avoid worsening his long-term injury.

The knock-on effect of Murray’s form is that Sexton has had an unreliable service and this has certainly affected his performance.

The fly-half has been frustrated by the situation and in these circumstances he finds it difficult to hide his feelings.

This has caused anxiety among the team and there is little cohesion, which is crucial for the team to perform to its potential.

Murray has personified bravery in his career to date and he is clearly not happy with the way he is currently performing, his team mates can see this and it is affecting the whole team.

Schmidt strives to recover cohesion in disappointing Ireland
Conor Murray, left, and Jonathan Sexton. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

The question for Schmidt is, will Murray recover his old commitment or should the coach be looking elsewhere for his first choice scrum-half?

With so little time to bed in an alternative before the World Cup, there is a strong case for giving John Cooney a start against France this week.

Although Cooney has been given little opportunity to demonstrate his credentials at international level, when he has been introduced his distribution has looked much sharper than Murray’s.

Schmidt has been loyal to a fault in the past and he may well trust the Munsterman to come good before the end of the Six Nations.

This weekend’s Round 4 opponents, France, have proved typically unpredictable in the tournament to date.

Poor defeats against Wales and England were followed by a much improved performance against Scotland.

Again the focus has been on their half-backs, with a transformation in the back division after the introduction of Emile Ntamack at ten and Antoine Dupont at scrum-half for the Scottish match.

The diminutive Dupont, in particular, has been a revelation and must surely have a big future at international level.

Their forwards have performed well in the first half, but their fitness is suspect and they have faded during the final 30 minutes.

 

Schmidt will want to play the game at a fast tempo and hopefully take advantage of the disparity in the fitness levels of the two teams.

Surprisingly Ireland still have a remote chance to lift the title, but they must get a bonus-point win this week to have any chance. Ireland have not become a bad side in the space of three months, just a malfunctioning team.

There is a serious resolve within the team to regain their mojo this week and we can expect a much-improved performance.


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