Over the last few years, Joe Schmidt has been widely hailed as one of the top coaches in European rugby, if not the world.
Unfortunately, it seems like things are beginning to unravel at a rather alarming rate during his third year in charge of Ireland. After just two rounds of Six Nations action in 2016, the reigning champions already look out of contention for the third successive title after a home draw with Wales, and a narrow away loss to France.
On the face of it, these results aren’t a total shocker, especially given the mounting injury crisis in the Irish camp, and the retirement of the ever influential Paul O’Connell after the World Cup last year. When you dig a little deeper however, there is an increasing sense of unease amongst Irish fans for the first time since Schmidt took over from Declan Kidney.
Not only have results not been going their way, but the style in which Ireland have gone down has seen some voices of discontent emerge. Whilst it is still very much a minority group, you can’t help but feel that if things continue as they are, then the murmurs may become a little louder, and Schmidt could find himself under pressure for the first time.
You can’t write off a coach after one poor competition, especially given he previously led Ireland to successive Six Nations titles, however the conservative nature of Schmidt in terms of both team selection and playing style must be an increasing concern for those at the IRFU.
Even with key players like Iain Henderson and Peter O’Mahony missing through injury, Schmidt seems determined to stick with the same game plan and personnel as much as possible, even if it means rushing players back from injury. It became clear early on in Paris that Sean O’Brien shouldn’t have been starting after coming back from injury whilst Johnny Sexton’s inclusion has also been questioned.
Now obviously coaches want their best players on the field as much as possible, but seeing O’Brien limp off so early on is a sure fire sign that he needed easing back into competitive rugby rather than being thrown straight back in against a highly physical French pack.
The other concern selection wise is that whilst other teams are integrating young talent into their side, Ireland seem to be holding back the likes of Stuart McCloskey and Gary Ringrose despite both having superb seasons in the Pro12 so far. This is despite the midfield pairing of Robbie Henshaw and Jarryd Payne hardly looking like world beaters.
The other concern for Ireland fans will be that whilst they still remain a solid unit, their attacking play has hardly expanded since Schmidt took over. Despite large periods of domination against both Wales and in particular France, they haven’t looked particularly threatening in the ‘red zone’. To have had such good field position against France and only come away with three penalties is frankly appalling at this level.
It seems the tactic of big up and under’s being chased by the backs remains their most likely source of scoring tries despite having plenty of possession. As a team, they have also become overly reliant on Johnny Sexton acting as a creative force through the backs with the centre combination failing to assist in this regard.
It’s easy to say that injuries have hampered their progress this year, but you only have to look back to their thumping at the hands of Argentina in the World Cup quarter final last year to see they clearly need to find a way to adapt their game plan. They have a solid foundation from which to work from, however they are now desperately in need of a cutting edge that doesn’t seem to be coming anytime soon.
This is particularly frustrating for Irish fans when they can see other sides in the Six Nations are at least attempting to implement a more expansive game plan (to varying success). Currently no side is really dominating as an attacking force, but at least fans can see some sort of positive progress, whereas with Ireland there appears to be no appetite for opening things up a bit.
The fact they have hired Andy Farrell as their new defence coach indicates that Schmidt is more interested in further shoring up his defence than he is in expanding Ireland’s attacking play. It may be too early to judge yet, but it appears that Schmidt could be in need of some extra assistance to help get Ireland to where they need to be.