Sunday 25 September 2016

Comment: Schmidt has fallen short of the bar set by Declan Kidney - We need to talk about Joe

Published 15/02/2016 | 10:40

Dejected Ireland players, from left, Conor Murray, Jamie Heaslip, Donnacha Ryan, Fergus McFadden and Tommy O'Donnell, after the game. Photo: Sportsfile
Dejected Ireland players, from left, Conor Murray, Jamie Heaslip, Donnacha Ryan, Fergus McFadden and Tommy O'Donnell, after the game. Photo: Sportsfile

Thursday night’s festival of political poppycock – the most excruciating 90 minutes of primetime TV since old Trap elevated tedium to art form – might well have drained your will to live.

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A repeat, then, may be the very last thing a weary nation wishes to contemplate. But after this Parisian systems failure, there is no choice:  We simply must endure another leader's debate.

We need to talk about Joe.

After a couple of poll-topping years, a powerful tsunami of glory, the tide has emphatically turned for our rugby Taoiseach.

Ireland is haemorrhaging hope: Boom has given way to bust. If the polling booths swung open today, Schmidt’s first preference share would collapse as quickly as Ireland’s abysmal scrum yesterday.

Could it even be that the time has come to contemplate leadership change?

Devin Toner reaches for a restart during yesterday’s match at the Stade de France. Photo: Brendan Moran. Photo: Sportsfile
Devin Toner reaches for a restart during yesterday’s match at the Stade de France. Photo: Brendan Moran. Photo: Sportsfile

That may seem hopelessly reactionary:  Here, after all, is the coach that led Ireland down a new avenue of progress, back to back Six Nations titles offering a great mountain of evidence of his skills.

Yet as his team are invaded by one virus after another, so the national mood shifts towards the most pitiless inquisition.

Against low-grade opponents, the most lampooned French side in 50 years, the visiting team barely threw a punch. 

A damning reality, let’s call it Schmidt’s law, hangs over the New Zealander like a Sword of Damocles.

Robbie Henshaw, Ireland, is tackled by Virimi Vakatawa, left, and Yacouba Camara of France. Photo: Sportsfile
Robbie Henshaw, Ireland, is tackled by Virimi Vakatawa, left, and Yacouba Camara of France. Photo: Sportsfile

No try + no score in the second-half + no scrum + no imagination = no hope.

Ireland have now managed one five-pointer in virtually three hours of Six Nations rugby:  It continues a troubling pattern of impotency. 

Against Wales, France and England last year, only Rob Henshaw touched down. 

Ireland departed Paris as a statistical non-entity: Zero line-breaks, a solitary offload. This is the DNA of a team that had had any freewheeling adventure-gene extracted.

Jonathan Sexton left the fray with a recurrence of the neck problem he suffered against Wales. Photo: Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton left the fray with a recurrence of the neck problem he suffered against Wales. Photo: Sportsfile

Under Schmidt, Ireland too frequently restrict themselves to the dullest, least daring  part of the rugby landscape: Automaton Avenue; Robotic Road; Soporific Street.

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Frances inside centre Jonathan Danty (R) is tackled by Ireland's wing Andrew Trimble. Photo: Getty
Frances inside centre Jonathan Danty (R) is tackled by Ireland's wing Andrew Trimble. Photo: Getty

In the French capital, they thrashed aimlessly down Blunt Boulevard, the try line a distant Everest for a team marooned in a creative and imaginative base camp.

However much his apologists pretend otherwise, Schmidt is the author of a 50 shades of grey approach, with Ireland's players the handcuffed and shackled Anastasia.

Ireland are a boxer without a punch:  Capable of backing an opponent into a corner without landing a game-changing blow.

Two dominant first halves against Wales and France have now yielded just one half. Safecracking seems beyond the feted coach.

Schmidt’s side are enduring a famine and seem not to have the wit or artistry to even mount a raid on Trevelyan’s corn.

As with the World Cup, Ireland lacked penetration, could not turn dominance into points, were devoid of X-factor.

Instead they again gave the impression of relentless decline, of a team scraping by on the most thinly borrowed time.

Of course there was gallantry and courage and broken bodies at the end of a game of brutal physicality.

But with Paul O’Connell watching from a commentary gantry high above the battlefield, the weary, punch-drunk green troops lacked a leader to ease them from the shadow of creeping doubt.

The flame of Irish rugby has run low.  And with it the wattage of Schmidt’s saintly corona has dimmed to the tiniest flicker.

As an immediate priority, we need to ditch the deferential approach to the coach, the down-on-the-knees reverence, the bunkum that the Kiwi is part Pep Guardiola, part Brian Cody, a southern Solomon.

We need to pose a reasonable question:  Why exactly do we continue to spray paint a halo about Schmidt’s person?

Ireland failed dismally at the World Cup, a be-all-and-end-all which the coach himself had so overtly prioritised.

Against Wales last week and France yesterday, they could not fire the killshot.

Instead a door was left on the latch and the precious diamond of victory was burgled from the front room.

All this with form players Stuart McCloskey and Garry Ringrose – the latter adding to his impressive catalogue of scores at the RDS on Friday – exiled by Schmidt’s conservative selection.

The assumption that Ireland thieved an Antipodean Lombardi from under the nose of horrified All Blacks looks increasingly like an illusion.

Examine the facts.

Declan Kidney and Eddie O'Sullivan were ultimately evicted from the coaching throne for perceived failings.

Yet, Schmidt has fallen short of the Grand Slam bar set by Kidney in 2009; his Irish team – shortlisted as potential champions – fell at the same World Cup fence as Kidney and O’Sullivan’s.

The hefty padding of three Triple Crowns - the last of them the season before his departure - could not insulate O'Sullivan from the cold front of criticism that followed the 2007 World Cup. He was gone by the following March, a four-year contract torn into a thousand pieces.

Despite a similar pattern of inexorable decline, there seems little appetite to suggest Schmidt has arrived at an identikit Ground Zero

In the autumn the creative wasteland signposted by a narrow escape against Italy was arrived at against Argentina.

Yet entirely legitimate doubts presented by the small cadre of those agonistic to the cult of Joe are angrily drowned out by the thunderous flap of flag-waiving cheerleaders.

But some of the past week’s muck must stick, even to a Teflon Taoiseach.

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For a while it seemed the goodnight punch had been landed flush on France’s jaw, and that it carried Johnny Sexton’s knuckle-print.

Eyes cold as alligator, the old-master delivered a withering first-half putdown to a sustained, deeply personal Gallic onslaught that depicted him as a dream-maker who could not deliver.

Sexton walked into a cutting gale of ridicule upon his return to Paris, briefly, frustratingly his home before a loveless two-year marriage to Racing 92 ended in caustic, hurtful divorce.

His former coach castigated Sexton as “uncontrollable” and “hyper-sensitive”.  The Irish out-half was compared to that most preening and self-absorbed of sporting divas, PSG’s Zlatan Ibrahimovich.

On Valentine’s weekend, the City of Lights, fabled as the enchanting epicenter of romance, had poison-tipped the Cupid’s arrow before taking pernicious aim at the former Racing playmaker.

Sexton’s response was to send emphatic early waves of authority through this flying-saucer shaped, rain-soaked coliseum.

His right-boot, as against Wales as sharp and cutting as a guillotine, quickly sliced through any Stade De France optimism.

Sexton's perfect three from three placekicking return offered Ireland a platform.

Yet if the Dubliner - before his latest, inevitable concussive blow -  was digging up some of his old credentials, his assertive blaze was in marked contrast to the caravan of mediocrity all about him.

A cavalcade of creative destitution and questionable selection with Schmidt at the needle point.  Yes, it is time for a leader's debate .

We need to talk about Joe.

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