Schmidt: 'Ireland have never had it so good'
Leinster boss Joe Schmidt tells Hugh Farrelly why rugby has big future in his adopted country
THE World Cup hangover has yet to abate. There is a still an over-riding sense of 'opportunity lost' lingering around Irish rugby following their quarter-final defeat to Wales.
While there were undoubtedly positives to be taken from Ireland's World Cup campaign, losing to a Welsh side containing players that the Irish beat on a regular basis in club competition, created more questions than answers.
One man in a position to offer some insight is Leinster's Heineken Cup-winning coach Joe Schmidt. With Leinster providing the bulk of Ireland's World Cup squad and starting XV, the New Zealander has first-hand knowledge of what makes these players tick, along with a good handle on the Irish rugby systems and psyche.
And, rather than dwell on what went wrong in New Zealand, Schmidt prefers to focus on what went right. He is adamant that there is plenty of talent coming through and that Ireland have reasons to be positive as they enter a natural transitional period looking ahead to England 2015.
Where does Ireland's World Cup quarter-final exit leave Irish rugby?
"I think Irish rugby has never been so successful. They qualified for the World Cup quarter-finals and had a game against a very good Wales team. They got to 10-10, absolutely nothing in it, and it could have led to a semi-final against France.
"I know this is 'could haves' and 'maybes,' but when you look at it, Ireland had a massive win over Australia, the Tri-Nations champions.
"Four out of the last six years the Heineken Cup has come to Ireland and I think 13 guys from the last World Cup came through and played this World Cup which means you have around 16 or 17 guys who have the ideal age profile to go on to the next World Cup for Ireland.
"Maybe I'm a 'glass half-full' sort of person, but I think that there's lots to be excited about in Irish rugby."
Is there an issue with the Irish mindset of having to be written off and in a 'backs to the wall' situation to produce their best rugby?
"Well, you look at the Wales game again and at 10-10, Ireland had the advantage. Who produced most of the rugby in the first half? You would have to say Ireland did. After the first three minutes, Ireland dominated.
"Three times they were in a position to score and Sean O'Brien (below) got held up over the line and then Mike Philips snuck in down the blindside from a bit of a nothing play, so these are the tight margins you are dealing with."
What about the missed tackles for the Jonathan Davies try -- is that not a mental issue for players who have proven defensive capabilities?
"At that stage, once you are chasing the game and time starts to get short, apprehension sets in and instead of just making the tackle, players start going 'shoot, I have got to make the tackle and get a turnover here' and then you start trying to do more than the primary objective of putting the man on the ground. But I'm surmising because I was a long way away watching on TV."
Should there be a national style of play, driven from the top down?
"When you are dealing with a provinces and the national side you are talking about two separate teams, two different systems, two different environments. I don't think it suits bringing in one way of playing from the top down.
"If you try to impose a style ... I don't tell Leinster's AIL clubs to play a certain way to help our Leinster players.
"I am a firm believer in playing to the strengths of your team, to cater for the style of the opposition, to the conditions of the day -- that is what dictates your strategy. I think Ireland did that pretty well at the World Cup."
Are overseas players affecting the development of Irish players at the provinces?
"Wales have six foreign players and two special projects, yet everyone is talking about this great young Wales generation. Do those foreign players preclude the development of youth? I don't think so.
"If you spoke to (Leinster winger) Dave Kearney, he would tell you that he wouldn't be as good as he is now if Isa Nacewa wasn't there. As an outsider, I certainly don't think overseas players are holding back Irish rugby.
"I think it also helps the likes of Ian Madigan, if he is competing with Matt Berquist it keeps him working hard and honest. Who was Berquist second string to? Dan Carter at the Crusaders, so the influence and knowledge he brings to the party is really important.
"If we had too many international players in one position, if all the provinces had the same position filled by overseas guys, I could understand how that could affect development of a player in that position.
"But again, if that was for one season while someone got old enough, say in the front-row, to be capable to step up, that would be a better investment than putting him in too early."
Is the Irish rugby system too slow in bringing younger players through?
"It is a gradual process, particularly in areas like the front-row. One of the reasons Irish front-rows haven't developed is that John Hayes was there for so long. But there is talent there now.
"The people who are best placed to know when these youngsters are ready are the coaches who work with them day-in and day-out. Greg Feek would be the best judge for us with regards to our front-rows, Jono Gibbes, Anthony Foley in Munster, Brian McLaughlin in Ulster.
"Is Declan Fitzpatrick ready for international rugby? I don't know, but Brian McLaughlin might know.
"It's hard for the national management because the only way they can judge is on game time -- they are not in the regular environment to see how they are progressing."
After winning the Heineken Cup first time out, is there a danger of 'second season syndrome' with Leinster?
"By the end of last season, everyone had a rhythm and everyone knew what they were doing. With so many players away at the World Cup at the start of this season there has been a bit 'start from scratch-ish' feel to it, it felt like a fresh team.
"We didn't start well -- it was a bit of déjÃ vu after our poor start last season -- but we have scrambled for three wins and the maturity that comes from fighting back to get wins is a positive thing for younger players. It's been a lot of hard work, but a lot of fun too."