Thursday 19 October 2017

Neil Francis: Smart coaches win titles and nobody is smarter than Joe Schmidt

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Pressure, they say, is for tyres and bra straps. Our coach is under pressure at the moment, he has a tournament to win and he would rather do it without the hindrance of expectation.

We know that the team is in good hands. Joe Schmidt's ethical and moral compass are undoubted. Character, real character, is who you are under pressure not who you are when everything is fine.

We might remind ourselves of just what type of an individual we are talking about here because it's been over 10 weeks since Schmidt was at the rugby forefront.

Hours after Ireland had beaten Australia in November, Schmidt was brought to hospital to have his appendix removed. You can die from a burst appendix. He stayed until the job got done.

If the squad needed reminding of the forthrightness of intent of the man in charge this was as graphic an illustration as you can convey. It's not hard to make decisions or give directions once you know what your values are. I wonder if Schmidt is related to Bill Shankly.

Read more: Six Nations Rugby Panel – Ireland's biggest competitive advantage is they have the smartest coach

There are many reasons why Ireland are favoured this season for the Six Nations.

A half-decent pack which might get stronger, the best half-backs in the competition and decent outside backs. A half-decent coach will give you some structured order and half an idea how to play. The reason Ireland are favoured is because of the man with no appendix - Ireland are contenders because our coach has put them in a position to contend.

Perspective

We have in the past put out far more talented sides and finished mid-table. It is the value of the great coach - resource maximisation. We might borrow from our oval-ball brethren in the USA to get a sense of perspective!

Some of you might have seen the Super Bowl last Sunday. The New England Patriots (my team) beat the Seattle Seahawks in an extraordinary game.

The coaching/quarterbacking axis of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady has been phenomenally successful. Six Super Bowl visits with four wins in the last 13 seasons. They should have six wins. New England win because they have the smartest coach, not just the smartest coach but the smartest coach by a mile. Every time I watch them play, you can see his team picking apart the opposition as they go. It is a mental process imbued by the coach.

If the Patriots are in trouble in the first half their coach figures out what is happening and changes tack. The Patriots score more points in the third quarter than any other team in the NFL. Joe Schmidt's teams (Leinster and Ireland) win more matches in the second half than any other team in the northern hemisphere. The real value of the great coach is what he can do with limited resources.

The Seattle Seahawks have the most expensive roster in the NFL. The Patriots come 19th in the league in terms of expenditure. You tell me - is that because the Patriots are a tight-fisted organisation or is it that they get a reasonably talented bunch of players (ok, Brady is a genius) to outperform week in, week out.

The names Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola mean nothing to most people reading this piece. They were New England's wide receivers in last Sunday's Super Bowl.

They are untypical in the NFL - smaller, shiftier men, unfashionable and surprisingly where most of the NFL's star receivers are black this pair are Caucasian. Amendola was an undrafted free agent and Edelman a converted quarterback handyman who was picked up as a stocking filler in the seventh round of the draft.

Unfashionable and unwanted. They were sensational last Sunday - both of them having career-defining seasons and when they needed to be good in the play-offs they were really good. Does that just happen? Nobody in the league - even now - would touch them or want them. Yet their coach saw value in them and recognised that these two would fit perfectly in the Patriots system.

Seattle's fabled defence couldn't deal with them and they won the big prize. Journeymen whose journey came to a spectacular conclusion.

Last season Ireland lost their starting wingers to injury. Schmidt had to make do with Andrew Trimble and Dave Kearney - not everyone's idea of the teenage mutant ninja turtles.

How would they compare to, say, George North and Alex Cuthbert? Very favourably in fact! Trimble had a signature championship and scored three smashing tries. Kearney was so much more than competent and certain, he was always dangerous and he took the right option every time and like his older brother was marvellously competitive in the air.

Ireland's unheralded wingers were the most effective wingers in the competition and saved Ireland through intelligence and team compatibility at crucial moments. They both operated on the principle that if you stay ready you never have to get ready.

Both wingers flourished when it was easier to fade to mundane. How do you account for this type of outperformance? Well, because the system and team dynamic set in place by the coach dictates that you do. The comparison with Belichick's unfashionable wide receivers is self-evident. It is a matter of regret that Trimble and Kearney have had injury-interrupted seasons - but they have championship medals to dull that pain. The comparison too with Belichick is also not a coincidence. Smart coaches win championships even with moderate talent.

Schmidt's luminous brilliance is somewhat tempered by what he is in direct competition with. We pray that the French keep faith with the lamentable Philippe Saint-Andre up to and including the World Cup.

Vern Cotter could possibly walk on water, turn water into wine and give Lazarus a decent go - but Scotland. . . Stuart Lancaster and England could struggle this championship without a pack and Jacques Brunel will continue with Italy's incremental improvement.

The threat I see is Wales. Is Wazza a smart coach? Personally, I think he has the intellectual properties of a tub of Flora but he has instinct and the rudiments of a game-plan and he is a winning coach - two Grand Slams, a Lions series and a Heineken Cup don't lie - but Ireland have over the last few seasons figured him out and he will only cause us trouble if he is able to reconfigure.

He named his team for tomorrow night's match very early. The reason for doing so is to tell England that they have a very strong, settled side, backboned by consistency of selection; England, meanwhile, can't come up with any consistency in selection because of injury. If Wales win that match they will be difficult to halt - they feed on momentum and confidence.

They have their two toughest matches at home (Ireland and England) and shouldn't be bothered by Scotland or France away from home. They, I think, will be Ireland's toughest match and the off-field match-up between Gatland and Schmidt is critical.

Schmidt now is on everyone's radar. Having watched his teams perform for five or six years now, I am no closer to being able to tell you what type of game his teams play.

It is an indefinable and completely flexible form of common sense that can move and change and react as a game or a season goes on. It is incredibly hard to get a read on it or counteract it. So to beat Schmidt's team you have to be a smarter coach than him.

Best of luck with that one lads.

Irish Independent

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