Monday 25 September 2017

Comment: The reality for Schmidt is that his entire time in charge will come down to the 2019 World Cup

Breaking quarter-final glass ceiling remains a huge task – despite avoiding big guns in pool

Ireland’s head coach Joe Schmidt pictured after the 2019 Rugby World Cup pool draw in Kyoto, Japan, yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland’s head coach Joe Schmidt pictured after the 2019 Rugby World Cup pool draw in Kyoto, Japan, yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

"A mixed bag". The last time Joe Schmidt used that phrase in public he was talking about Craig Gilroy's performance after the winger had scored a hat-trick in Rome.

A few months on, and he was playing down an obvious positive once again as he described landing Scotland and Japan in Ireland's World Cup 2019 pool.

While the coach was playing it cool in Kyoto, his vice-captain let his guard slip at a commercial event in London.

When Ireland came out of the hat, Jamie Heaslip punched the air in front of a room full of journalists and former players. His team had avoided South Africa, Wales as well as the twin threats of Argentina and France and, understandably, he was delighted. His coach would probably have preferred if he'd kept it to himself.

In truth, Ireland couldn't have wished for a better draw yesterday but as the morning progressed and the tournament revealed itself, the reality of their task also revealed itself.

Sure, Pool A is a handy number but who's that over there in Pool B? Only New Zealand and South Africa who will be delighted to knock the stuffing out of each other and move into the last eight to face either Ireland, Scotland or Japan.

The reality for Schmidt is that his entire time in charge will come down to the 2019 World Cup.

For all that he has won two Six Nations on points difference and negotiated a strong win percentage with one-off wins over the southern hemisphere's big three, the former Leinster coach knows well that his final act in green will define him.

If he guides his team past their traditional breaking point, he'll have differentiated himself with clear water from all of his predecessors. Lose to the Springboks and he'll return to New Zealand having failed to shatter the quarter-final glass ceiling. If the pools and quarter-finals go according to seeding, then Australia would await in a semi-final, but there is much to get over before that scenario.

This summer's two Tests in Japan have worked out well for Schmidt who will get a chance to check out the host nation and size up the opposition - coached by his fellow New Zealander Jamie Joseph - while also discovering a few new players who can contribute in two years' time.

Not surprisingly, he was full of praise about the Brave Blossoms who famously beat South Africa and ran Scotland close in 2015.

As for the Scots, the fact they won the Six Nations encounter between the sides this season will not be forgotten, while Romania and Tonga - who are likely to make up the group - were not forgotten when the Ireland coach spoke in Kyoto yesterday.

"They're all good, bad and ugly really. I think it's really hard to assess where teams will be in two years' time," he said.

The upward curve Japan have been on, they got very close to beating Wales at the Millennium Stadium and obviously their World Cup heroics last time were pretty spectacular.

"Romania, most likely, we obviously will need to be on our mettle and the last one will be Tonga, Fiji or Samoa and they've traditionally gotten through and had strong representation in the previous World Cups.

"We lost to Scotland recently too, so it's a mixed bag but it's incredibly exciting to draw the host nation in that the crowd, the enthusiasm and the interest will be huge."

For all of that, there is nothing to fear for an Irish team who have topped their pool at the last two World Cups.

Even if they face an emotional Japanese team on the opening night of their own World Cup, they would expect to have enough in the tank to win. Schmidt would never let his team underestimate the hosts in the way South Africa did in Brighton and even if they did come a cropper, they would still have a second chance against the Scots.

Neither game would be expected to take the kind of physical toll that Ireland endured against France in 2015, even if Tonga will soften Ireland up a bit with their big-hitting style, and they would expect to be in reasonable shape come the last eight unlike the disastrous week that led up to the Cardiff clash against Argentina.

Progressing through the pool should be straightforward for a well-coached, experienced side like Ireland will be. Schmidt will line up a decent standard of warm-up games with Wales already pencilled in and the players will be well-drilled and fit.

Scotland will be going through their own transition in the next two years as the Gregor Townsend era gets under way. The Glasgow coach has long been an admirer of Schmidt's and has previously spoken of the Ireland coach's influence over his play.

"Ireland have been one of the most competitive and most-improved sides over the past few years and a lot of that is to do with their quality of players and the influence of Joe Schmidt," he said.

"They have shown real consistency over the past two or three years. They are one of the best teams in the world. Whichever side we drew from the top band was always going to be very tough.

"On the other hand, we know Ireland pretty well and have a couple more opportunities to play them before the World Cup, while we also know a lot about their players through the Guinness PRO12. Japan obviously made a memorable impact at the World Cup two years ago, beating South Africa, and will have tremendous support going into the tournament."

The schedule and venues will be unveiled in September and a clearer task of what awaits will emerge then.

Clearly, Schmidt's men have avoided a pool of death scenario but their task in going where no Irish team has gone before remains a difficult one.

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