Rugby

Thursday 31 July 2014

Ten priorities for Schmidt as road to World Cup kicks off

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Published 01/02/2014|02:30

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Irish Rugby Squad
Paul O'Connell of Ireland and Head Coach Joe Schmidt
Paul O'Connell of Ireland and Head Coach Joe Schmidt

In 595 days Joe Schmidt will assume his position in the coaching box at the Millennium Stadium and watch his Ireland team take to the field for their World Cup 2015 opener against Canada.

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In November he got his feet settled under the desk, now the first of two Six Nations Championships between now and that tournament gives him a chance to get a feel for what he has to work with in the ultimate competitive environment.

In the summer, he will get to augment his playing pool with a few more new faces, but he made it clear at yesterday's team announcement that the Championship is to be given its best shot.

His short-term goal is finishing top of the pile on March 15, but the New Zealander is a strategic thinker and the long-term will not be far from his mind.

"The danger of a World Cup is that it is every four years and to put all eggs in that basket is a massive risk," he said recently.

"Trying to project 18 months out is very difficult, some players play on and are still very good in their mid-30s. I do believe age is just a number and it is not as relevant as the number of tackles or the number of rucks a player can hit in 80 minutes.

"Having said that, maybe it's in the back of the mind."

While the next eight weeks will be all about the Six Nations, the long game goes on with England 2015 in mind.

So, what can the next five games tell us about where Ireland are and what can Schmidt learn?

1 CONSISTENCY IS EVERYTHING

Since Wales brought Ireland's 2011 World Cup campaign to a shuddering halt in Wellington, the side have only put together back-to-back wins over top class opponents once, when they followed up their win over Argentina in November 2012 with victory in Cardiff last year.

The players have spoken of it, the coaches have tried to address it, but so far no one has identified exactly what is preventing the side from backing up their big days.

Consistency would bring Six Nations momentum and that would, in turn, generate confidence which would feed into the World Cup plans.

Schmidt has named his strongest available team for the first game and is likely to do the same against Wales. Winning both would be a start.

2 DEVELOP LEADERS

The generals of 2009 are slowly but surely drifting away and by next season Paul O'Connell and Gordon D'Arcy will be the last of the 'Golden Generation' standing after this Six Nations.

Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney, Cian Healy and Johnny Sexton have put in some big displays for Ireland over the last few years, but given the struggle for consistency, they have not achieved as they would have liked.

They must take ownership of their team under their former Leinster coach and lead from the front.

3 DEPTH CHARGE

Last season saw a host of Ireland's players gain exposure to international rugby, but it also exposed a lack of depth in crucial positions.

When selecting his initial squad, Schmidt plumped for fringe players with the World Cup in mind rather than those coming towards the end and, while the first team might be the strongest available now, the Wolfhounds, and those next in line, are generally younger players looking to make an impact rather than older heads outside of Six Nations contention.

4 REPLACING A LEGEND

This is O'Driscoll's farewell tour and Robbie Henshaw has been learning from the master in training.

The 35-year-old has promised to get his hands on the ball this spring and go out with a bang, Schmidt described him as "effervescent" in training.

He remains the best outside centre available, but the Athlone youngster needs a taste of the big time and could do with a run at some stage.

5 GAME PLAN PROGRESS

Towards the end of the Declan Kidney era, Ireland's game plan just broke down and, with confidence low, very little came off. One of the main sources of excitement when Schmidt got the national job came from the cohesive style of play his Leinster team played with and, after signs of life in November, he will be hoping his players have a clearer picture of what he wants them to do and can execute it well.

By 2015, he'll want them to be able to do it in their sleep.

6 PROP IDOLS

If Marty Moore wins a first cap off the bench tomorrow, then he will become the seventh tighthead used since the 2012 Six Nations.

"With John Afoa, Nathan White and BJ Botha playing in the various provinces, there's not a massive amount of depth to go to," Schmidt admitted yesterday, so the rapid development of Moore – whom he never started as Leinster coach – is a welcome addition.

Mike Ross remains the man the Irish coaches can't afford to lose, but with the 22-year-old coming on there are signs of life beyond the big Corkman.

7 TAKE ADVANTAGE OF DOMESTIC BLISS

That Robin Copeland returned to Cardiff Blues on Wednesday helped Schmidt make his point about the IRFU's need to keep their players here in Ireland.

The in-form No 8 will be playing with Munster in World Cup year, meaning Johnny Sexton will be the only player based outside of Ireland and that access should help develop a 'Club Ireland' spirit over the next 18 months.

8 MANAGE THE BODIES

Central control over all of those players will give Schmidt the hope that most of his best players will be fit and available come September 2015, even if the experience of this Six Nations where he is down Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls, Sean O'Brien, Donnacha Ryan and Luke Fitzgerald for his opening game heightens the need to have quality back-up available.

9 COVER AT 10

The loss of Jonathan Sexton during last year's Six Nations was cataclysmic and the same cannot be allowed to happen next year during the World Cup campaign.

O'Driscoll laughed that the Racing Metro out-half is the only undroppable option in the squad, but Schmidt could do with getting some serious game-time under Paddy Jackson's belt after making the Ulster playmaker his de facto second choice with yesterday's selection.

10 LEARN TO WIN AGAIN

Paul O'Connell spoke at length yesterday of the 2009 team's ability to win tight games, describing O'Driscoll's tries in the Grand Slam year as ones that wouldn't make his highlights reel.

Ireland have been losing ugly for the last couple of years, coming out on the wrong side of four one-score defeats last year.

They need to get back to eking out results and that experience of winning tough games will stand to them come next year.

Ruaidhri O'Connor's World Cup 23: R Kearney; T Bowe, R Henshaw, L Marshall, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best, M Moore; D Ryan, P O'Connell (capt); P O'Mahony, S O'Brien, J Heaslip. Reps: R Strauss, J McGrath, M Ross, I Henderson, R Ruddock, E Reddan, I Madigan, F McFadden.

Irish Independent

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