"That was a different regime" - An inside line on big changes within the Ireland camp
"Come the end of the week, there's still pressure to get everything right but it's probably done in a slightly different way."
Back in December 2018, Jacob Stockdale reminisced about what it was like to be in Ireland camp with Joe Schmidt as head coach.
At the time, Stockdale had scored 10 tries in 12 Test appearances and had only stunned the All Blacks with a chip and chase try a few weeks beforehand. It was a year out from the World Cup, in Japan, and several new faces had been given a chance to prove themselves, but the time for experimentation was coming to a close.
"Joe is bringing in young lads," Stockdale told House of Rugby Ireland, "and you have no option but to play well. If you don't play well, you're gone. That's that. That's how I felt when I first came into the set-up."
During that same interview, the Ulster star spoke of the one part of a Joe Schmidt camp that caused him, and many teammates, to break out in a cold sweat.
"That is the culture Joe has built in - that you have to be excellent every time you are on the pitch.
"Like the walk-throughs," he added. "Oh, it's the most terrifying moment of camp. You're going, 'Another walk-through to get through. Just survive!' ... I think that's it. Joe says to you, 'I'm going to push you so hard in this so whenever you go into a game, you can handle it'."
Fast forward two years and the Schmidt era has been and gone. Stockdale and his teammates, old and new, have had several doses of reality and England are top dogs again. Another World Cup has passed by with Ireland back home before the semi finals played out.
Iain Henderson, Stockdale's teammate at Ulster and Ireland, was up for media interviews today and discussed how camp life under new coach Andy Farrell [Schmidt's old No.2] is a lot less prescribed and unforgiving.
"Obviously, at the time [previous] under a different coaching staff they ran things differently. So there was a slightly different atmosphere to try and get [your point] across. But with Jacob now, it's a lot more open and he's a lot more willing to ask questions. And that's really good for helping him understand what he's got to do and what can be asked of him, and where he might need to jump between. I know Jacob very well now, from having worked with him a number of years, and he is more than capable of getting across all the work he needs to get across."
Henderson opened the door to an interesting conversation on how much has changed since Farrell took over from Schmidt. The Kiwi won three Six Nations titles with Ireland [including a 2018 Grand Slam], won a Test series in Australia, beat South Africa away and beat New Zealand twice.
Still, there were the two World Cup quarter final exits, in 2015 and 2019, and a team that looked to tighten up and falter when the big squeeze was applied. The team was an embodiment of a head coach that went into obsessive compulsive overdrive around both World Cups.
Under Farrell, I asked Conor Murray if it felt like a player could raise his hand and admit he did not know the answer.
"Yeah, it's definitely an atmosphere like that," the Munster scrumhalf replied.
"In our last regime, it was a group that was together for such a long time and things were really embedded and, more often than not, everyone knew what they were doing. It's a bit of a different set-up, especially with so many new players. And with the older, experienced players, it can be hard asking questions in front of a group.
"So I think the atmosphere for people to ask what they might perceive as a silly question... well, there's no silly questions. People are really open about learning and moving forward. Because it's a new coaching set-up and we're still getting used to it, it's a really good atmosphere to have in such a situation where people don't feel silly asking questions, and not knowing everything. Especially early in the week.
"Come the end of the week, nothing has changed there. The latter half of the week, people are still expected to know their detail so there is a flow to training. Certainly earlier in the week, there are a lot of chats going on in mini groups, one-on-ones with the coaches, whatever it may be. There's an awful lot of conversations being had to iron out things. So it's good that way. You don't go into a game guessing or hoping that for the correct line or correct pass. It's, more often than not, talked about during the week."
Murray was reminded of those Schmidt walk-throughs and the word "regime" came up again.
"The walk-throughs were pretty stressful in the pre-function area of Carton House," he began.
"That was a different regime, and we won a lot under that regime as well. So there's a benefit to it. I suppose [referring to] the previous question, people are now fine to ask about the lineouts or 'Is this my role?' or whatever.
"There's probably a bit more of that, and people are a little more comfortable in asking those questions, which is great. Especially as there's such a new group, there's a lot of young guys that might be a little nervous about asking a question, so to see even an inexperienced player saying, 'Look, I don't know that call' or 'I don't know that line there. Can we go through it again?', they are comfortable doing that.
"But it's not a situation where it's okay not to know things. Come the end of the week, there's still pressure to get everything right but it's probably done in a slightly different way."
With Farrell loosening the shackles, the players are said to be enjoying life in Ireland camp a lot more. From the outside, though, many Irish supporters are getting impatient and some are already harking back to a more totalitarian, Schmidt-esque era.
Murray, though, insists the coaches have done all that can be expected of them. It is the players, he insists, that have to solve this puzzle and unlock their full potential.
"We've reviewed the [Georgia] game honestly and truthfully," he says, "and there's an appetite in this squad to get it right this weekend.
"I've said in loads of interviews that they're small fixes or we're very close, or this and that. So it's up to the players now. The coaches have given us everything we need to go out and perform, and it's about us executing.
"At the weekend, it was a matter of executing a breakdown and getting fast ball or letter the Georgians slow it down. Things like that that are solely on the players' backs to get right and, off the back of that, being able to convert opportunities. There's just a... you know, we were annoyed at the weekend that we didn't perform better and put more points on the board. Georgia fully deserved to be in the game."
"But you can just sense it, as a playing group," Murray concludes, "we're frustrated with what we've shown last weekend and we want to put it right, this weekend.
"That usually leads to a much better performance, when the players take the ownership, understand it was on them and that a lot of the fixes are down to themselves. There's that vibe in camp this week."
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Season 3 has returned with Ian Madigan & Eimear Considine as hosts, and has already featured interviews with Brian O'Driscoll, Nigel Owens, Sean Cronin, Shane Williams, Mike Brown, CJ Stander, Ugo Monye, Sene Naoupu and Dan Leo.