Joe Schmidt’s approach will linger in Ireland long after he has left the green hilled shores. His game plan and his methods have proven so successful that they are embodied in the ethos of the Irish team for the long haul.
Whilst most Irish teams of the past were born of passion, fire and brimstone, the Schmidt Irish team is born of intelligence, discipline, accuracy and detail, detail, detail, and more detail.
This approach netted them well deserved wins against the All Blacks, an all-time high World Rugby ranking and silverware. This came not by fault, but by design.
In this article, we will look at the on-field approach of Schmidt, how certain elements mirror a World Cup-winning coach who boasted a 70 per cent-plus win record against the All Blacks, and the moves passed down to the Irish team.
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Ireland and the Rod MacQueen Wallabies
There are significant similarities between Schmidt and MacQueen, head coach of the 1999 World Cup-winning Wallabies. Under his tutelage, Australia went from whipping boys in 1997 to World Cup winners, Lions tour series victors and the best team in the world.
These accolades and achievements, however, were merely the tip of the iceberg. When MacQueen inherited the Wallabies in 1997, he set in place lessons learnt and honed from his successful business ventures, principles of Sun Tzu, his Surfboat days at Colloroy, and the style of his Super Rugby team, the Brumbies. The 90 per cent underwater caused 10 per cent of success you see at the very tip.
While Schmidt and MacQueen’s off-field approaches are near identical, we instead focus on the similarities between their on-field approaches so we can see the practical elements in play.
The Brumbies were the Super Rugby team coached by MacQueen in their first two seasons. Wildly expected to be the poor cousin of the Reds and Waratahs, Australia’s long-established teams, MacQueen prepared and modelled them on the philosophies of Kaizen, Sun Tzu, and developed a style of play based on possession, speed, and relentless attack.
The result made the Brumbies the premier rugby team in the Australian conference, making the final in their second year of inception. Their style of play was designed to repeatedly target the fringes, recycling and attacking with speed to put fringe defenders to the ground.
They would then hit this thinning area with rapid pick and go, switches and inside passes around the ruck through gaps created from prior phases. Only then would they move the ball out wide. The constant improvement and innovation MacQueen preached led to a series of plays targeting this area.
The Irish style of play isn’t exclusively based on the Brumbies, but there were very strong similarities, especially in the early days of Schmidt’s tenure. Some of these plays are identical to the ones used all those years ago.
Ahead of the ball work
Schmidt is a perfectionist in his own right. The reason that Schmidt has taken bits and pieces of MacQueen’s philosophy is explained in the on-field work.
MacQueen and Schmidt were and are both champions of obstruction with their decoy runners. Rather than stop, their decoys run into the line to hit the defender, advertently creating space for their penetrators.
Ireland are masters at this. Their decoy runners will continue running into the line to stop drifts and targeting individual inside shoulders. A concept taken from rugby league, it has become common practice in today’s game. With Schmidt’s detail, however, Ireland’s decoy runners have dedicated ‘off-ball’ roles in the interference of the defensive line close to NFL style plays.
Australia were also very guilty of this in their rumble plays while picking and going rapidly and X runs as we will see later. Their cleaners would play through the ruck, allowing the ball to be picked up and ran into space as long as they were quick enough.
Using their body as a shield while passing was a key development in the Wallabies under MacQueen. As the Wallaby game plan involved flooding the channel by having multiple receivers running short off the carrier, the defence could not clearly see whom the pass was intended for until the last second. This gave the penetrator the best chance of getting through.
We can see it here, how many times the Wallabies pass behind their bodies and how many times they turn into contact. This would draw men going into contact, meaning the off-load behind would be to runners moving into potential space which drew the defence in from the outside.
The use of shielding in today’s game is very rare. Most passes happen in front of the body and since the mid-2000s there have been only two teams doing it as an established principle, Ireland and Australia.
Ireland’s use of shielding in their set-piece play is one of their best innovations and a perfect example of why it was originally developed.
This move, termed by Tadhg Furlong as “Joe’s move” doesn’t work without Furlong’s shield pass. If the pass is made in front, Bundee Aki is caught. We can see CJ Stander, as the first decoy, remaining behind the line. This is for two reasons.
- To restrict the movement of the lineout tail-gunners closely and prevent Aki being caught;
- To remain the support option for Aki.
In this move, we see Jack Clifford drift out by the running option of Jonathan Sexton. Furlong’s shield pass is made very early in his turn, so he isn’t hit before it is made. On top of this, his pass is so flat that not only can Clifford not see it, he can’t get back in time.
Australia also incorporated the shield into their style of play between 2013 and 2014.
Whilst this demonstrates its set-piece usage, the Wallabies of 2014 used exactly the same style of passing demonstrated by the MacQueen Wallabies, with body angles pointing backwards and the passes being a mixture of back and reverse passes to hard runners off the carrier.
Why was this? Their then coach Ewen McKenzie was as a player coached by and then coached alongside MacQueen. He was only given a year in charge, but towards the end, as his philosophies were becoming embedded, the Wallabies played some incredibly impressive rugby.
The On-Field Moves
Commonly used in the MacQueen Wallaby sequence play, these plays are classic Schmidt strike plays having been used before in the Leinster colours. Yet, they were seen before in the early days of the MacQueen Wallabies being an attacking move to target the fringes of opposition defences.
These plays are near identical to one another and, before Schmidt arrived on the scene, had for the most part been forgotten. The effectiveness of Schmidt’s teams at executing them means this is no longer the case.
X Runs were a key Wallaby play of the MacQueen era that utilised ‘ahead of the ball’ work mentioned in the prior section. They were very effective, so much so that Graham Henry called the referees’ attention to them during the 2001 Lions tour for their subtle usage of obstruction. This worked as a key try to Toutai Kefu from this very move was brought back.
Their use in the modern game is incredibly rare but in the past, X Runs were especially effective against what is now structured as the ‘Rush 10’ defence. This defence is composed of the three defenders closest to the ruck rushing up, with the fourth defender sitting back, causing the formation of a dog-leg or triangle. This defence is currently employed as default with New Zealand and England and in moments by many other teams.
By running plays to split the point man and his inside/outside defender, breaks can be made here. The X Run is one such play. We see the move here, performed against France in the 1999 World Cup final.
Australia did their homework and used this move against this target. It was done very flat to the line attacking on an individual rather than zonal level, allowing the Wallabies to use clear shepherding without attracting much attention. Ireland have brought these moves back, in this case aiming to target the same triangle as the Aussies do.
Here we see Robbie Henshaw coming in on the hard angle to target the tailgunner prop. Henshaw’s pass is made to Keith Earls too early, having not committed the prop’s shoulder. On top of this, the outside options have not been close enough to the play to interest the outside defensive line, resulting in Jonathan Davies turning in.
The result is Earls was confronted by both the defenders who should have been taken out with this play by the marked attackers. A year later, we see another variation of the play.
The lines with which the Wallaby version were run were timed to perfection. This move has the potential to be incredibly effective with a little fine-tuning. Schmidt has developed the X Run variations because of this insight. All can find their origins in the Wallaby X move and they have been used very intelligently.
George Gregan, along with Stephen Larkham was the attacking catalyst for much of Australia’s attack play. The scrum-half ran the base of the ruck brilliantly, scooting to the line to commit players before combining with forward and back three runners with inside passes and switches.
The amount of deception found in these plays was extraordinary. Off the ball work by the outside men to encourage drift defenders and weak shoulders, late changes in angle and clever lines and switches, players obstructing the fold of players from one side of the ruck to the other, not to mention the innovative use of the back three to strike at these points for the greatest effect.
Ireland have shown moments very similar to this.
The back passes and the inside switches are very similar to Gregan, especially when Ireland’s first example is from a maul off a set-piece. Australia’s use from set-piece netted the try that put the 1999 World Cup final beyond doubt.
Schmidt has revolutionised the intelligence and decision making of the Irish nines. When to pass, when and how to obstruct, when to scoot, when to kick, when to dummy, when and why to run laterally and most importantly, how these things add up to improve the effect.
While Schmidt is his own man – and a sensational rugby coach – we can see subtle signs that suggest MacQueen may have had an influence on the maestro New Zealander.
The greatest similarities can be found in their off-field approach, both being advocates of Kaizen, Sun Tzu and the implementation of cultures that consistently strive for excellence.
The approach has worked and while Ireland are in a bit of a dip now, the intelligence behind this team is truly remarkable and should pave way for the future.
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