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The Wrap: It's 'About Schmidt' as Ireland plan and execute perfectly

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18th November, 2018
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In the 2002 film About Schmidt, Jack Nicholson kept a rein on his overworked, latter-career mannerisms, in what was a controlled, subtle performance that contributed to a greatly satisfying commentary on the simultaneous blandness and complexity of small-town, big-country America.

Stephen Holden of The New York Times said of the film: “In countless small ways the movie illustrates how Middle American culture absorbs innovation while remaining essentially unchanged in its solid sense of its own identity.”

Another Schmidt, this time Joe, not Nicholson’s ‘Warren’, has indeed mastered the art of harnessing the culture, spirit and passion that Irish fans and players have always had for their rugby, and adding to that identity, enough subtlety and innovative tactical acumen to take his side to the point where – if not ranked top of the world today – they damn well feel as if they are.

There was of course no subtlety or surprise at the intensity of Ireland’s beginning, the green mist that enveloped the pitch dissipating enough to reveal New Zealand’s early press being decisively repelled.

That was as close as the All Blacks would come for the rest of the first half, Ireland adopting a strategy of ball retention and kicking only to where they could contest (and often win back) the ball.

A 9-6 half-time lead felt like insufficient reward for Ireland’s endeavour, and when Kieran Read charged down a Jacob Stockdale chip just after half-time, with Jack Goodhue unmarked beside him, New Zealand suddenly seemed certain to pull ahead.

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But Read’s fumble proved to be a telling moment in the match, symbolising the inaccuracy and lack of clinical edge to the All Blacks’ play, no doubt bought about by continued Irish pressure.

Stockdale fared better at his second attempt at a chip and chase, a nifty switch to the blindside (reminiscent of the All Blacks’ try to Beauden Barrett in Yokohama), sucking winger Ben Smith forward from deep, leaving a hole behind that Aaron Smith wasn’t able to cover.

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At 6-16 down the All Blacks finally managed to lift the tempo in the middle period of the second half, in the 60th minute drawing the only loose kick from Ireland for the whole match, from Jonathan Sexton. Play opened up from the counter and, after some rapid recycling, only a soft, ‘stand-up’ bounce from a Barrett grubber denied Ben Smith a try.

Instead of rolling towards the try-line, the ball sat up for the omnipresent Peter O’Mahoney to snatch. It was as if the Munster warrior was a leather magnet, having also earlier earned two decisive ruck turnovers.

O’Mahoney duly took the individual plaudits as he departed, but – to return to the opening theme – it was Ireland’s connectedness, rather than any individual brilliance, that won them the day.

While everyone knows that the All Blacks can be rattled by white-hot defensive pressure, just like any mortal side, it is another thing – as England last week and countless sides before have discovered – to sustain it for 80 minutes. But Ireland maintained their line speed, straight defensive line, defensive spacing and execution on the tackle throughout, and gave the All Blacks almost no scraps and half-chances to feed off.

Ireland Rugby Union

Jacob Stockdale of Ireland (C) celebrates with teammates (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Schmidt’s prescribed kicking game was particularly instructive. Like a mother at a family beach outing, never losing sight of her child even for an instant, the ball was kept on a tight, shallow leash, always within grasp of Irish hands. Or if not, close enough to provide Damien McKenzie and Beauden Barrett no wriggle room from the back.

Of course any great plan is only as good as its execution, and full marks here must go to Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath, who made light of the absence of first-stringer Conor Murray.

Ireland’s first win against the All Blacks, two years ago in Chicago, came when the All Blacks fielded an under-strength middle row of Patrick Tuipolotu and Jerome Kaino. This time it was the premier combination of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, yet the All Blacks made little headway regardless.

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Both gave away silly penalties, Retallick was uncharacteristically hesitant and inaccurate in midfield, and Whitelock looked in need of the summer break he sorely needs after a marathon Super Rugby and Test season.

It was left to Ardie Savea and Scott Barrett to provide the energy, but without the same cohesion and collective will, this was a beaten All Blacks pack on the day, that failed to lay sufficient platform for the finishing players outside them.

Steve Hansen isn’t a man who is prone to panic, but the ‘brains trust’ may well reflect on how sides this year, like South Africa, England and now Ireland, have been able to seize the initiative for long periods, and not afford the All Blacks their usual luxury of playing larger portions of the match on their own terms.

How the All Blacks respond to this will almost certainly prove key to their World Cup defence.

All Blacks fans had some cause for complaint when Ireland fullback Rob Kearney bumped Reiko Ioane in the air, in the second half, causing him to fall heavily to the turf. By recent measures it warranted a yellow card, however such was Ireland’s command of the game, and the surety of their tackling, it is hard to imagine how Ireland being reduced to 14 men would have made any real difference.

The worst thing about Kearney’s challenge was not that referee Wayne Barnes failed to reach for his pocket, but that his failure to do so provides renewed oxygen and validation for the ‘he had eyes only for the ball’ brigade.

World Rugby has made excellent progress in the last couple of seasons to eradicate the risk of serious injury from mid-air collisions via educating players to stay out of the catching/collision zone unless they are certain that they can compete fairly for the ball.

It will be to the game’s detriment if that progress is mitigated, or even reversed, all because of what is ostensibly an over-reaction to concerns about the excessive intrusion in games by TMO’s.

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Just over an hour after Retallick – for the second time in the match – dropped the ball cold in midfield and sealed the 16-9 result, the New Zealand women’s cricket team hammered Ireland by eight wickets in the T20 World Cup. A kindly female household member, with barely a passing interest in sport, charitably suggested that this result evened up the ledger for the weekend; New Zealand 1, Ireland 1, an honourable draw.

Somehow, I don’t think there’d be a single person in a Dublin bar who’d be buying into that one!

So if Ireland is a side who know and understand clearly who they are and what they are about, what can we say about the Wallabies, 26-7 winners over Italy in Padova?

Frankly, not a lot more than what has been said at any point in the last twelve months. There were flashes of cohesive ball movement and individual skill, but no real sense of a straightforward, no-nonsense team plan existing or, if there is one, players instinctively and collectively knowing their roles within it.

There were individual highlights to be sure, Samu Kerevi proving a mighty handful for the Italian defence through his incisive running, and it was great to see an Australian winger, Marika Koroibete, finally get on the end of a couple of passes for a try-scoring double.

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Up front, the Australian scrum was mostly solid, with Taniela Tupou making the most of the class drop, to enjoy his best Test match to date.

Taniela Tupou

Taniela Tupou of the Wallabies (second right) celebrates winning a penalty. (Photo by Jono Searle/Getty Images)

Many eyes were on ‘salt and pepper’ Adam Ashley-Cooper, and while he was certainly serviceable, one can’t help but look at Sefa Naivalu, Tom Banks and Jack Maddocks, and feel a sense of ‘what’s the point?’ around his inclusion.

The Wallabies won the game at the gain line, consistently winning the collision area in both attack and defence, but with Will Genia only squeezing over for the Wallabies’ fourth try in the final minute, 21-7 up to that point, was a below par return for this dominance.

Remember too that the Wallabies should have been down 7-0, when in the 14th minute, halfback Tito Tebaldi picked off a Jake Gordon pass and raced untouched to the try-line, only to be (incorrectly) called back for offside.

This was not one of referee Pascal Gauzere’s finest moments. If unsure of Tebaldi’s positioning he should have let the try be scored, before checking it with the TMO afterwards.

But with the penalty decision already made on the field, Italy’s despairing requests for a TMO review became redundant. Even if Gauzere had belatedly picked up that it was Izack Rodda’s looping tap-back, not Tebaldi cribbing, that created the opportunity for the intercept, he would have been unable to award a try anyway, because he had stopped play before the ball was grounded.

As disappointing as this was for Italy, they remain a side that relies on pluck, some strong go forward from a couple of individuals like Braam Steyn and Dean Budd, but too little else, to consistently trouble the leading nations.

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They also showed that dumb rugby is not solely the domain of the Wallabies when, in the 59th minute, and Scott Sio in the sin bin for a deliberate knock down, they ignored the option of an attacking 5m scrum and placed faith in a lineout that was a trustworthy as a real-estate salesman standing for parliament.

There was further chaos when flyhalf Tommaso Allan failed to find touch from a penalty from almost point blank range – the match commentator so stunned he bizarrely suggested that it was a deliberate tactic, aimed at confusing the Wallabies.

Arguably, the Wallabies don’t need any help in that regard, but nevertheless they return to London with a much-needed win under their belt, and the prospect of a positive week ahead of their final Test of the year, against England.

Much will depend on the fitness of David Pocock, who left the field after suffering a head knock, and which way Michael Cheika decides to opt with his inside back selection – I won’t even pretend to guess at that one.

The best match of the weekend was at Murrayfield, where the opening tries to both sides – scored by Jessie Kriel and Peter Horne – were absolute pearlers.

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For much of the game it was thrust, parry and thrust, until Scotland lost their way tactically, wastefully burning a ten-minute period with a numerical advantage, and then, entering the final quarter down 20-23, turning down an easy shot for penalty goal, only for Finn Russell, not a minute later, to attempt a far more difficult 45 metre drop goal.

The Springboks shut down that first attacking lineout maul, and then another in the final minute to seal a 26-20 win – fair reward for their better organisation and forward strength in the contact areas.

In (selected) other matches, France were always in control against Argentina, winning by 28-13, Wales beat Tonga 74-24, Georgia beat Samoa 27-19, and England (with a number of personnel changes) trailed Japan at half-time, only to out-gun the visitors in the second half, to win 35-15.

Without any disrespect to Jamie Joseph’s Japan, England will be a very different beast next weekend. And with a nod to one of Nicholson’s finest characters, Colonel Nathan. R. Jessup, in A Few Good Men, this could well be ‘make or break’ time.

Can Michael Cheika’s team finally deliver a performance that Wallabies fans can be proud of? Or if not, will it finally be time to see if Rugby Australia can ‘handle the truth’?