Wednesday 7 December 2016

George Hook: Joe Schmidt may well be the worst coach/selector in Irish rugby history

Published 30/05/2016 | 02:30

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile

On Saturday in Murrayfield, Connacht not only destroyed Leinster's aspirations to Pro12 glory, but set established players' reputations at naught and may well have hastened the end of Joe Schmidt's reign as Ireland coach.

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When the selection merry-go-round of coaching appointments went on some time ago, Connacht got Pat Lam, Scotland got Vern Cotter and Ireland got Schmidt. Thanks to a craven media, the Ireland coach had an uncritical assessment in power; his achievements were overblown and his failures ignored.

The Leinster squad on Saturday had almost 600 international caps between them, whereas Connacht had less than 50. As a result, the favourites played an unimaginative safety-first game that has been the hallmark of their time in the Ireland camp. In contrast, Connacht, with little or no contamination, played rugby with courage, precision and verve.

Leinster missed a bucketload of tackles. In this decimal age, to get a sense of just how many, one has to go back to a bygone age. They missed dozens of tackles! The players in white were not bad tacklers, it was just that they had no experience to deal with players than ran at space rather than the man, at an angle rather than straight, and most of all, offloaded rather than die with ball.

Everywhere, players in green stood up and were counted. Meanwhile, Rob Kearney, Johnny Sexton, Eoin Reddan and Luke Fitzgerald lost even the ability to take and give a pass as they descended into the mess of mediocrity that passes for rugby union in Ireland.

Far more worrying was the performance of Sexton, who had an appalling game and seemed content to shovel the ball along the line to static centres outside. His head dropped after 30 minutes and his lack of interest in the proceedings was demonstrated by his careless forward pass in front of his own posts in the dying minutes.

In complete contrast, AJ MacGinty dominated proceedings and a neutral observer would have found it hard to believe that Sexton was rated one of the best out-halves in the world with over 60 test caps while McGinty had less than 10 with minnows USA.

Connacht got the ball to the wing with regularity and space opened up. The try count could have doubled such was the attacking dominance of the underdogs. Meanwhile, Leinster's efforts to get the ball wide were pathetic. The receiver got the ball standing, if in fact he caught it, and on numerous occasions the last man was the pedestrian Jamie Heaslip rather than a back with pace.

At half-time, the match was over as a contest. The players from the Pale needed a miracle and the response told us everything we needed to know about the game plan. A prop and a hooker were replaced! Leinster were going to counter the Connacht rapier with a bludgeon. A management with a hint of imagination would have replaced the under-performing Sexton with Ian Madigan, instead of waiting 73 minutes to make the change.

Schmidt may well be the worst coach/selector in Irish rugby history. Yesterday exposed, for all to see, the paucity of his thinking. Kearney the elder and Dave Kearney ahead of Tiernan O'Halloran and Matt Healy belied belief. Just as bad was Stuart Olding and Luke Marshall getting the nod ahead of Garry Ringrose and Stuart McCloskey.

The authoritarian approach by the national coach has spelled the demise of leadership. Heaslip was anonymous both as a leader and an influential player. John Muldoon dwarfed him psychologically and showed up his complete absence of threat at the back of the scrum.

The logic of the move by Robbie Henshaw to Leinster is unfathomable. One of Ireland's best young talents will go to a team where he will wither on the vine in the company of Ringrose. The best province in Ireland was underfunded and is now cannibalised to further the reputations of those in charge of the national game.

David Nucifora, the performance director, and Schmidt should have their contracts ended and Pat Lam promoted to national coach. The position of performance director was a sinecure and Nucifora has not had a tangible effect on Irish rugby. One really wonders if the IRFU committee is more concerned about whose wife gets on the plane to Twickenham than the health of rugby union in Ireland.

Former Ireland coaches like Ronnie Dawson, Syd Millar and Tom Kiernan must have watched in horror at the decline in invention. Those men worked with less players, less money and less media adulation but delivered teams that played to the limit of their ability.

Ireland travel to South Africa in two weeks for a three-Test series. One wonders what the Irish rugby public expects. Does it want turgid, safety-first displays aimed at keeping the score down or losing with all flags flying and guns blazing?

I do not know what they want, but I know what they will get.

Irish Independent

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