Perfect Setting for New Dawn
Series will be a success if Ireland can execute Schmidt's ambitious game plan – even if All Blacks scalp unlikely, writes David Kelly
Published 04/11/2013 | 01:00
Appearances can be deceiving at this time of year. The radio sports jock got it right when the Ireland rugby squad was announced last month.
"You know it's winter," he intoned with breathless meteorological urgency, "when the autumn internationals are around the corner."
For November is normally a time for mixed messages and confusing conclusions.
On the one hand, to the man on the street or on the bar stool or the couch, this month's games are "friendlies".
To the player in the dressing-room or the coach in the box or the treasurer in the boardroom, they are anything but.
November is also month for ridiculous assertions and ignorant assumptions.
In contrast, the fixture with New Zealand, against whom Ireland have (in)famously never recorded a knock-out blow in more than 100 years of reckonings, has been displaying the 'sold-out' signs in the window for over a month in advance.
This is the only fixture the man in the street cares about; rugby hipsters may tediously intone about Samoa's qualities but the ordinary punter would struggle to name one of their players.
Even if he could, he would probably mis-pronounce it.
Australia languish so far behind global powers South Africa and New Zealand – as the brutish, one-dimensional Lions only narrowly proved last summer – that they remain an untrustworthy bellwether for a team's ambitions.
And yet, if international teams measure themselves against the All Blacks above all the other southern hemisphere nations, then what to make of Wales' utter indifference?
Warren Gatland has steered Wales to three Six Nations titles, two Grand Slams and a World Cup semi-final appearance since taking charge in 2008; Ireland have suffered more than most from their northern hemisphere dominance.
But Gatland's record in that same period against the southern hemisphere giants of New Zealand, South Africa and Australia has been dire, with just one win – against Australia in 2008 – compared to 20 defeats.
They have not won a November international since 2009. Last November, when England beat the All Blacks, Wales endured a complete blank; six months later, that form-line was turned on its head as they notched up another championship.
In contrast Ireland, patting themselves on the back after thumping an uninterested Argentina, were almost lapped in their most dire Six Nations championship of the professional age.
Wales have four Six Nations titles (three Grand Slams) in 14 seasons – but they last defeated Australia in 2008, South Africa in 1999 and New Zealand in 1953.
Ireland may have a better record than the Welsh of landing a slingshot between the eyes of the Boks and Wallabies but, in both cases, it has largely been illusory, the 2011 World Cup mugging of Australia representing a prime example.
Ireland have only two other wins versus the Aussies in 21 matches dating back to 1981; as we know, they are winless against New Zealand.
They won three straight November internationals against South Africa between 2004 and '09, but have only one other win against the Springboks reaching back to 1906.
So, November nirvana or March mirth?
For devotees of the Irish international team, it is a simple equation.
But, with a new coach promising a clean slate and a fresh approach, there are still important indicators that may be unfurled this month. However, any harvests can only be assessed in the spring.
IT'S THE ECONOMY STUPID – WHAT THE IRFU WANT
Aside from the excitement of seeing if a wildly talented coach can inspire a directionless, moribund international side, it's mostly about the moolah.
Ireland's three games will serve as a direct advertisement to prospective punters wondering should they bother laying out thousands of euro on premium tickets for a stadium that doesn't seem to sell out as often as it once did.
The IRFU have a €26m shortfall in ticket sales to make up; watching an agreeable Ireland team flooring the All Blacks would be a priceless boon. No pressure, Joe.
Ireland have been ditched by their kit supplier, while more and more of their players are keener than ever to follow Johnny Sexton's lead and ditch Ireland.
The IRFU are on borrowing terms with the banks, which is why Declan Kidney was on borrowed time once results and morale within the team took a nosedive.
For all the excitement the Heineken Cup provides for supporters, many of whom prefer provincialism above patriotism, and players, who have been vastly more successful with club than country, international rugby is the main driver for the IRFU.
That's where they earn – and spend – the vast majority of their income. Money remains tight; hence, Ireland's back-room team has been pared to the bone with no full-time kicking coach or scrum coach on board. No director of rugby either – yet.
ABOUT SCHMIDT – WHAT THE COACH WANTS FROM HIMSELF
Like Kidney before him, there was little objection to Schmidt's appointment as Ireland coach.
His gilded success with a Leinster side who became one of the most thrilling and adventurous in the world game has engendered a welter of optimism that he can simply transfer these ideals to the international sphere.
Otherwise, why else give him the gig? It is at once a tantalising and elusive promise. Last week's testy tete-a-tete with Racing Metro over Sexton crystallised the difficulties.
When the pair were at Leinster, they had constant contact to plan back-line moves and tactical gambits; that is no longer the case.
Schmidt must shoehorn what was a season-long endeavour into snatches of time on a limited number of weeks with a vastly different cast of players.
It will take time. Sadly, there is no time in Test rugby. At Leinster, Schmidt expected his players to deliver a standard of excellence that had been painstakingly pored over on the training ground.
Players would not need to think on the field because every eventuality had already been parsed in training; not only was there Plan B, there was Plan Z if so required.
Schmidt may portray a genial personality in public but the mask drops in private; he is ruthless in his legendary video review sessions and he will demand intense commitment and accuracy from his players. If they can respond to his incessant drive for excellence, that will be half the battle.
DIRECTION AND LEADERSHIP – WHAT THE PLAYERS WANT
When Sexton first met Schmidt, the coach was phlegmatically humble about what he could offer to the Leinster players.
Sexton, on behalf of the group, told him not to worry. The players would assume responsibility for themselves.
After the appalling inconsistency that has blighted Ireland since the 2009 Grand Slam, this group of international players, who to a man will confess that they have under-achieved in green, need to reassert this sense of personal responsibility.
Schmidt promised Leinster that he would make them the best passing team in world rugby; both helped each other to achieve that goal.
This philosophy must now transmit itself to the international arena. The coach can only provide the platform and structure. He has proved he can do this.
Now the players need to respond in kind.
MANAGING EXPECTATIONS – WHAT THE SUPPORTERS WANT
Ireland's players will routinely knock out the line that there is no reason that they cannot win all three November games.
Of course, there are many reasons why they cannot, chiefly their barren record against the All Blacks.
And so, on the one hand, Peter O'Mahony declares bullishly that Ireland can win all three, while Rob Kearney pleads for patience.
Mixed messages in public. In private, the targets will be more succinct. Performances will be key, not results. Schmidt will hope to hit the ground running in terms of establishing a coherent playing approach and a consistency in delivering targets.
For too long in the latter days of Kidney's initially successful reign, Ireland looked like a collective who had no idea what they were doing from one minute to the next, never mind from one game to the next.
The first half of Ireland's first match in the 2013 championship against Wales demonstrated that they have the ingredients to hit a high standard. What subsequently followed did not.
Ireland had more of the ball in last year's Six Nations than they had in the 2012 version yet they scored eight fewer tries than they had the previous year.
After winning only our second Grand Slam in 2009 with a limited, defensive style which fitted the dynamic of a team rebounding from a dismal 2007 World Cup, Ireland's quest for an attacking game-plan has regularly faltered.
The Ireland supporters will demand a style that reflects the coach's philosophy and the players' undoubted skill.
No more than the players, the supporters want to see an Ireland team that expresses itself and enjoys itself.
Nobody will quibble should Ireland fail to beat the All Blacks. History shows they always do.
It is how they attempt to defy history which will indicate how bright the future can become. Only then can appearances be worth believing.