Thursday 18 December 2014

Timing is everything for Schmidt

Published 06/05/2013 | 05:00

29 April 2013; Leinster head coach Joe Schmidt at a press conference to announce his appointment as the new Ireland head coach. Ireland Rugby Press Conference, Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
29 April 2013; Leinster head coach Joe Schmidt at a press conference to announce his appointment as the new Ireland head coach. Ireland Rugby Press Conference, Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

HE began the season, like any other coach, expecting a minimum standard, hoping for success and praying that ill fortune would not intervene to mock his best-laid plans.

And yet his team were ripped apart by debilitating injuries, such that they lacked the cutting edge that many had expected them to produce and, in the competition that truly defines them, they faltered.

The story of Declan Kidney and Ireland's fall? Correct. But the description could just as handily apply to Leinster, could it not?

For, when they were challenged to produce their best, also with a selected deficit in established, world-class players, they tripped up in their audacious bid to become the first club to win three successive European crowns.

While Kidney was chased out of the premises, Joe Schmidt was later acclaimed as the new king and his ascension to the throne was greeted with fervour throughout the land.

Too simple a rendition of the chief headline from Ireland's rugby campaign? Obviously.

Crave

History is always written by the victors and it is likely that Leinster will finish this campaign with at least one trophy, even if it is not the one they crave.

Ireland, lamentably, were bereft and left empty-handed in so many ways.

Kidney's decline was well marked even before the gods decreed that injuries should be visited upon his team with a ferocity that made one quiver to think just what wrath the Corkman had aroused in a previous life.

And so, whereas 40 minutes in Cardiff could have defined his 2013 as Ireland head coach, it instead represented the last high watermark of a tenure that had become bafflingly inconsistent.

His dithering in selection issues and damaging tactical choices exploded in his face at every turn and, even when it seemed he was doing the right thing – ditching Ronan O'Gara, for example – it always seemed as if it was for the wrong reason.

In contrast, backboned by back-to-back European success and a consistent commitment to a style of play, Schmidt's legacy remained relatively undamaged by Leinster's inability to qualify for the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup this season.

Their campaign may have been defined by brave twin defeats to Clermont – whose subsequent progress franks the form book – but that paled in comparison to Ireland's ragged slump in losing a first ever Six Nations game against Italy.

All the while, Munster revisited some of their most storied fables of old by challenging the very same elite that had downed Leinster, often toying with the fear that their over-reliance on Paul O'Connell and O'Gara was debilitating to team development.

Next season will prove if that is indeed the case and whether those dragged kicking and screaming into a new era can establish a fresh period of dominance.

Ulster maintained their rate of improvement, even if the Heineken Cup represented a step backwards, and their importance to the national side remains a vital component; so too Connacht's emerging backline as they nervously anticipate a third successive back-door shimmy into Europe's top tier.

While fans of the provincial teams will harbour their own peculiar worries, it is the international team that will once more hog the spotlight next season, as it did for much of this term. Especially now that they are under new management.

Schmidt now leaves one situation that required virtually no rebuilding – but now apparently needs a good deal of rewiring – and steps into another scenario where restructuring should also not, in theory at least, be an issue.

Of course, pleading with Brian O'Driscoll to play for another season is not a challenge that has ever faced any coach in the professional era but, given who's doing the persuading, the answer will clearly be a positive.

With his second testimonial due to coincide with the visit of the All Blacks – how about a speech from guest of honour, losing Kiwi out-half Dan Carter? – the former Ireland captain will hang around, once his body survives the Lions series.

And so, apart from the perennial sweating over the health of the only tighthead apparently available, Mike Ross – it should be recalled that one of Schmidt's staff has his fingerprints all over the Michael Bent mess – the incoming coach should not be in a position to complain about resources.

A glance at this summer's schedule will explain.

First, discard the nine Irishmen on the Lions tour and the further half-dozen or so currently injured – the sad, enduring case of Stephen Ferris leads a queue of the infirm that also includes Eoin Reddan and Luke Marshall.

The two-match tour to North America will include approximately 27 players. Add to that the Emerging Ireland tour to Georgia which, presumably, will encompass a similar number.

Assuming also that a raft of players will be politely excused duties – for example Donnacha Ryan, so that he can reassemble all the broken bits of his body, Gordon D'Arcy and Ross – that amounts to nearly 80 players in total.

Add in the U-20 World Championships too – and the swift graduation of players such as Rhys Ruddock and Iain Henderson has demonstrated that tournament's potential for unearthing talented gems – and the picture becomes even clearer.

And that's before you even consider all the players who had the temerity to make the career choice that playing first-team rugby in another country was preferable to riding pine in Ireland.

For all the bleating about a lack of playing resources, the paradox of the Irish system is that, rather than a deficit in playing numbers, it is the lack of playing opportunities afforded emerging players that remains the problem.

Hence, a generation of Munster players only made their breakthrough when the great two-time champion side broke up through retirement and injury; it seems faintly credible that an international side should be trumpeting the international emergence of players in their late 20s.

Jonny Sexton almost quit the game entirely when he could not force his way into the Leinster side four years ago; next season, he will become Irish rugby's highest-paid player and a trailblazer for those who want to play first-team rugby wherever they want without forfeiting their right to a green jersey.

Admittedly, inter-provincial player movement is becoming increasingly popular and, despite the cack-handed attempts to introduce restrictions on foreign players, there is a recognition that Ireland needs to have a variety of options playing regularly at the highest level.

obvious

Ian Madigan may quite well have been the most obvious choice in the minds of many experts to play for Ireland when the calamitous Six Nations out-half jinx paralysed Kidney's thought process.

At least next season, Schmidt will have the luxury of being able to view him as a candidate who is a regular starter for his side, which wasn't the case as far as Kidney was concerned.

Madigan will be just one of the players Schmidt will be keen to advance in terms of experience this summer, and the Kiwi will be itching to introduce his demanding skill lessons to such as Craig Gilroy, Stuart Olding and Simon Zebo.

And, more importantly, those forwards who are not used to his methods – Tommy O'Donnell, Peter O'Mahony et al – will be eager to demonstrate their willingness to disprove the notion that they have been vulnerable to the heightened demands of Munster's expansionist coach Rob Penney.

All the statistics from Ireland's depressing Six Nations campaign demonstrate a vast deficiency in skills, particularly among the forwards; Schmidt proved he could improve those levels at Leinster, but it remains to be seen if he will have enough time to do so with Ireland.

That will be Schmidt's biggest challenge.

No sooner does he get a thirst for the hands-on action this summer – and it is thanks to the IRFU's tomfoolery that the departing Les Kiss has to hold the door open for him – he will have to wave goodbye to his players.

After a depressing season on the international front, partially redeemed by provincial successes, Ireland will hope that his first impression remains a lasting one.

Irish Independent

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