Schmidt set to pass first test with honours
Kiwi's Leinster success has raised expectations as he battles for hearts and minds of a nation
Published 09/11/2013 | 01:00
AT Thursday's team announcement, Joe Schmidt was asked if it felt like he was preparing for an exam.
It was a question that resonated with the former headmaster who enters the Test arena for the first time this evening with the weight of a nation resting on his shoulders.
While Samoa are above Ireland in the IRB World Rankings, their profile is still less than those of Australia and New Zealand and, while 44,000-plus tickets is a healthy number for a clash with the Islanders, the main talking point around the country today will be O'Neill's earlier press conference across the Liffey.
The IRFU may be well aware that they are in a battle for hearts and minds with a resurgent football ticket, but the lack of glare has suited their new coaching team this week.
This week might not be a sell out, but the fact that Australia and New Zealand will attract capacity crowds shows that they have landed a box-office ticket of their own.
Schmidt's success at Leinster has brought with it an expectation that he can transform the fortunes of the ailing national team.
The players who have driven provincial success have failed to transform their performances when it comes to the green jersey and frustration abounds.
It cost Declan Kidney his job and saw Schmidt handed the reigns last April.
The consensus is that the 48-year-old would be a panacea for all that ailed the national team. It might prove true in time, but the coach himself has pleaded for patience from the off.
For six months he has intermittently fielded questions on the task at hand, with that expectation rising by the month. The phony war ends this evening at the Aviva Stadium, the preparation and hard work are done.
The exam has finally arrived.
For Schmidt to emerge from his first Test with a big win and a minimal injury list ahead of the visit of Australia and New Zealand would represent an A+.
The higher-ranked Samoans are missing eight front-liners and their player pool is not as deep as most of their contemporaries in the world's top eight.
While they'll hope to start quickly – like they did against Wales last year – hit big and play off the cuff, the home team will be looking to weather the early storm and take control before rolling out the big guns to win the match during the second-half.
The players have been buzzing about the variety of training and the word 'clarity' has been mentioned more than anything else in interviews at the team's base at Carton House.
By selecting eight players who played under him at Leinster, he has guaranteed some continuity of game plan, while the rest of their team-mates have been assiduously doing their homework on the Schmidt way of doing things.
If his side can beat a Samoan team who have beaten Wales, Scotland and Italy in the past 12 months and show that the message has gotten through, it will represent a job well done.
Les Kiss was yesterday asked if the performance was more important than the win this weekend and Schmidt's assistant made it clear that at Test level, victory is everything, even if the performance doesn't quite match up. "That's a given," he said.
Ireland want to play well and get the country behind them, but beneath the aesthete in the former Leinster coach lies a pragmatist and, above all, a winner who demands the highest standards from his players.
Before he led Leinster to four trophies in three years, he endured early struggles, but they were mainly based on the unavailability of players. Once the front-liners returned, they beat Munster at Lansdowne Road and never looked back.
With just 10 games all season, there is less time to grow into the role and, with an unforgiving November schedule, the reality is that an admittedly strong Samoan side are still the softest touch on the agenda.
Even if the game plan doesn't click right away and the play doesn't flow, there is an onus to get a first win on the board and the regime off to a winning start.
If the set-piece functions well, the maul gets going and Ireland squeeze through, then the coaching staff will be satisfied – even relieved – to be up and running.
Prettiness can come later, getting the pass and moving on to the next Test is all that matters.
There is no shame in losing to a Samoan team packed with Top 14, Premiership and Super Rugby experience, a national side who have steadily improved since the last World Cup and have beaten half of the Six Nations in the past year and average three tries a game.
It would be a disappointing way to begin the regime, but there would be some solace if early signs of growth are clear to see. Although the Ireland squad have been speaking positively all this week, they are still coming into this November on the back of a miserable year, a muddled game plan and inconsistent results.
With Sean O'Brien, Cian Healy and Paul O'Connell to come into the side, along with Johnny Sexton, there is plenty of room to improve over the coming weeks and a strong performance would give them something to build on.
It would be a case of getting back on the horse and repeating the process against Australia.
The worst case scenario would be a stuttering display in defeat and a host of injuries that would bring back memories of last year's Six Nations, a miserable world that no one in Irish rugby wants to revisit any time soon.
After all the talk of clarity and focus, it would be devastating to see a repeat of the same old failings that dominated the latter stages of the Declan Kidney era, while after a disastrous year of injuries, Ireland could do with a run of games where their best players are available.
It appears unlikely to happen, but if Samoa get off to a good start and the crowd at Lansdowne Road get restless, then the spectre of February and March will loom large and the progress and positivity will be wiped out in the course of one evening.
And so, Schmidt will enter his coaching box today to begin the opening exam of the biggest test of his coaching career to date.
He has earned his shot and the good will that comes with it and the buzz about his squad is overwhelmingly positive.
The New Zealander would privately probably take the pass, but, given the standards he has exerted since arriving in this country, there is little doubt that he strives for perfection.
Irish rugby could do with the lift, particularly with far sterner propositions on the horizon.
Verdict: Ireland 23 Samoa 15