Schmidt's action plan to end cycle of despair
Coach must address serious issues to rebuild shattered side in time for World Cup
AS THE All Blacks look to complete their perfect season at Lansdowne Road this weekend, Ireland will be looking to finish their annus horribilis on something of a high.
Saturday's desperately disappointing defeat to Australia summed up a miserable year for the national team – it has been all downhill since winning in Wales last February.
Joe Schmidt said after the Wallaby defeat that there is no "miracle fix" or "panacea" to cure the national team's problems and, having never beaten this weekend's opponents, Ireland couldn't be going for a historic win over the world champions from a worse base. It was left unsaid on Saturday, but these provincial stars still look like the green jersey sucks confidence out of them.
When it comes to the crunch, they have not been able to consistently perform to the required level since 2011 and looked undercooked against the Wallabies. The old players looked their age, the young ones callow.
New Zealand are on for a 100pc win record in 2013, but as Rob Kearney reminded us last week it's not so long since Declan Kidney's Ireland side completed 2009 without losing a game.
Since then, they have not managed more than a 50pc win percentage.
After watching the Wallabies outperform their hosts in every area, Leinster coach Matt O'Connor argued that it was Australia's time together that made the difference – adding that he didn't feel that the Irish players were as technically inferior as they were made to look.
"The results in Heineken Cup and Test rugby over the last couple of years would say that no, they're not," the former Wallaby said yesterday.
"The reality is those (Australian) guys have played five, six, seven games together and the combinations were very, very good. They played really well. They probably haven't played that well against a quality side for a while. I wouldn't read too much into that."
Schmidt has his eye on one ball this week and it is marked 'New Zealand'. The task at hand is so big that all other concerns can wait.
But, when he gets over the challenge of facing down the All Blacks he will be in a better position to assess the size of the job he faces – and he has a number of issues he has to address if 2013 is not repeated.
Balancing game time is a difficult skill and one that the national coach has little control over. Jonathan Sexton has played too many games, Brian O'Driscoll too few. These are facts that the coach must deal with as he prepares his team to face the best side in the world.
Last season, despite the rigorous player welfare system in place in Ireland, Kidney had to deal with a ruinous injury list. The IRFU have looked into the injuries and haven't identified a pattern.
Some players were given the summer off, the Lions were eased back at the start of this season a week or two after the June tourists who had featured in North America. It has had mixed results.
Donnacha Ryan was one of those excused from the trip to the United States and Canada but is now out until after Christmas, Ian Madigan came back late after starring on tour to find New Zealander Jimmy Gopperth wearing his Leinster No 10 jersey and unwilling to give it back, while O'Driscoll picked up a calf injury and only got 73 minutes under his belt before this month's games.
Schmidt must work with his conditioning experts to refine the system and put as much pressure on club coaches to give his players as much game time as possible, while hoping Racing rest Sexton when necessary.
FRESHEN UP THE DECK
In just two team selections, Schmidt has already shown that he is not willing to accept the status quo and wants to bring through promising players.
Robbie Henshaw, Jack McGrath, Dave Kearney, Devin Toner, Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall will all emerge from this November far better for the experience, even if the likes of Gordon D'Arcy and Mike McCarthy find their hopes are dashed.
The message last week was that there are no untouchables in this Irish set-up and Schmidt will have to continue with the ruthless streak to better his chances at the World Cup and hope the youngsters can start swimming in the deep end right away.
ENGAGE WITH THE PROVINCES
Paul O'Connell alluded to the catching up which the non-Leinster players need to do in the aftermath of Saturday's game, saying that their minds were so full of information that the intensity needed was lost. It was an interesting insight into what the rest of the squad are trying to do in catching up with their colleagues who have worked with the coach since 2010.
As a former Leinster boss, Schmidt knows what the other side of the fence looks like but needs to get the provincial coaches on the same page with regards to game plans and handling standards.
The impending appointment of David Nucifora to the performance director role should help communication lines and add weight to what Schmidt can do in terms of getting the right players game time and bringing through young talent at the required level.
Opening up the dialogue channels could help get more players involved at senior level and, then, give the national coach the option of picking from a wider base.
Schmidt lamented the fact that Luke Marshall was learning on the job in the international arena and it is hard to argue with his point. This weekend, the lesser lights of the provincial game will get their chance to shine as the Pro12 reappears.
"This is their moment in the sun. They've got to be very good when they get those opportunities," O'Connor said.
"Injuries and international call-ups mean everyone in our Academy will get a chance to play. It is up to those guys to step up and be as good as they can be".
They must try and take their chance, but it is not easy when you have Academy players breathing down your neck from below and senior players keeping you at arm's length from above.
GET THEM MOVING
Pat Lam challenged Ireland's young players to get out of the big provinces and get senior games under their belts elsewhere, and when you look at the log-jam facing certain players at Leinster in particular you could see his point.
Scrum-half John Cooney is biding his time below Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss, with 24 club appearances and a Heineken Cup medal under his belt at 23.
If he was Australian, he would be told to move to a club where he would see more game time, but he argues that he is learning from the duo while waiting for his chance in an excellent environment.
"It is something that's very difficult," he said. "But I also learn a lot from those two, I do passing and kicking together and get some nice pointers off them. It's more pressure, but when you take these chances they multiply and more opens up. You just have to keep working hard. This club has won so many things over the last couple of years, you don't want to leave the best club. I don't really see the point in leaving."
Counter that with the success that Niall Morris and Robin Copeland have made since moving away and the game time that Craig Ronaldson and Matt Healy have enjoyed since joining Connacht and you can see Lam's point.
Promising players like Cooney, Dominic Ryan, Rhys Ruddock and Brendan Macken are missing out on game time because of the talent in front of them at their province – and it means that the national side are denied options.
There is much to work on and not much time to do it.
There is no panacea as Schmidt explained, but plenty of things need fixing if Ireland's fortunes are to be turned around.