Sunday 15 December 2019

A year in, Mr Rugby keeps building his own expectations

After 12 months in charge of Ireland, Joe Schmidt goes into his second November Series in a strong position - even if he still feels the heat

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt: 'We do live in a bit of a bubble, where we're inward looking rather than looking out at the pressures'. Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt: 'We do live in a bit of a bubble, where we're inward looking rather than looking out at the pressures'. Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

A year ago today, Joe Schmidt walked into the Drawing Room at Carton House and named his first team as Ireland coach.

Flanked by new cap Jack McGrath and stand-in captain Jamie Heaslip, the New Zealander cut a somewhat uncomfortable figure at the top table as he gazed out at the packed conference room. Even for games against Samoa, national team announcements are the biggest media draw in Irish rugby.

He came to the job laden with an expectation he had built himself at Leinster by delivering four trophies in three years.

Asked whether those expectations were something he enjoyed or whether it was a double-edged sword, he replied: "I'd like to think we can develop a product that people really enjoy attaching to and, if you get that emotional attachment, I think that the team, they get driven forward as a result and I think the spectators enjoy the experience that much more.

"That's the challenge that the team have, it's a challenge for me and it's a little bit daunting, to be honest, because of that expectation but I'm excited by it. I'd love to see it happen immediately, but I'm also a realist and it may take a little while."

Within 17 days he stood 60 seconds away from history only for it all to be snatched away by a systems meltdown and some All Black brilliance. Just over four months later, he cut a beaming figure at the Stade de France after his team had delivered the Six Nations title.

Yesterday, he confirmed one of the bigger bombshells of his 12 months in charge, the decision to partner Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne together in midfield.

Expectations

It was a bold call from a confident coach whose firm decision-making sometimes undermines his public utterances about how difficult he finds the weight of the nation's expectations.

The press conference was dominated by talk of the centres and the New Zealander answered each query logically and carefully, covering all bases as he went.

The reaction to Schmidt's decision to pair two novices against one of the world's best teams summed up his standing right now.

It was arguably the biggest selection call by an Ireland coach since Declan Kidney picked Paddy Jackson ahead of Ronan O'Gara at Murrayfield, but the New Zealander's stock is so high it is simply a case of 'In Joe we trust'.

"It's a courageous call," flanker Chris Henry acknowledged.

"Any decision Joe's made in the past seems to have worked. You know, it's very unusual in team meetings when there's been a discussion on something and he's not right. He's made the call on this and I'm really excited to see how they go like everyone else in the country."

There are, at least, two Joe Schmidts. The players know one, the public the other. Behind the grin is a cutting tongue of truth kept in reserve for training-ground malfunctions or players turning up without having done the requisite level of preparation.

The man nicknamed 'Mr Rugby' by Isa Nacewa expects the highest professional standards from his players and can point to the amount of medals he has won with them as a reason to work as hard in the video analysis room, learning plays as they do on the training paddock.

'Accuracy' and 'intensity' are the watch-words around the camp. Players are there to do their jobs.

In public, the mask rarely slips, but there have been moments where the media-savvy operator has let his guard down - no more than when he was asked, in the aftermath of Ireland's first Test win over Argentina last June, how he felt Simon Zebo had gone.

By curtly replying, "Yeah, Simon was alright", he only served to reinforce the idea that he didn't fancy the Munster flyer who will start his third consecutive game for Ireland on Saturday. Even when he gave a far more expansive answer on the cause celebre a couple of days later, the damage had been done.

Schmidt is sensitive to the perception held in some quarters that the number of Leinster players in his team is down to some sort of bias.

However, his stock remains sky high. So much so that he could go on national television and remove Paul McGrath from the Second Captains' 'Good Wall' in favour of Rory McIlroy and get away with it.

On the field, he has gotten so much right but he has acknowledged that the off-field challenges have been difficult to adjust to.

"The media and public interest is on a whole different level," he admitted earlier this year.

"It's not suffocating, but it does tighten the breathing a little bit. You do feel that there is less room for error, less room for flexibility because, as soon as - both within the game or in the public - as soon you don't get something quite right, Test match rugby is such fine margins and so ruthless that it is all results-driven."

Last week, he was asked if he felt more comfortable about it all after a year in the job.

"I feel very small," he laughed. "I feel squashed. The pressure... after a year in, you think you know your way. I don't think that's accurate at all. I think you know how tough it is.

"You know how fine the margins are and we missed a really fine margin this time last year (against New Zealand) and we managed to get one during the Six Nations.

"As a coach, you're always trying to find those fine margins and I'm incredibly lucky because I've got a group of coaches who are very much driven in the same direction and allows us an entire group to probably buffer ourselves from some of that pressure because we do live in a bit of a bubble, where we're inward-looking rather than looking out at the pressures."

One of those coaches is Les Kiss whose work has been central to Ireland's last two international successes. The Australian will follow his fellow assistant John Plumtree out the door after the World Cup to work with Ulster.

In October 2015, when he has less than a year to run on his own deal, Schmidt will be on the lookout for a replacement. "I definitely think he has grown from where he initially came in by his own admission. It is Test rugby and you don't really know where you are going with it," Kiss said of the head coach this week.

"I think you will all agree he has done a pretty good job to date and he has a pretty good win rate. There has been some learnings along the way, but Joe's rugby mind is second to none.

Challenge

"Overall it has been a challenge. He has handled it well, he has utilised the people around him really well and he has built something nice and solid. He has tried to be as efficient in preparation as possible, to be as detailed as possible. I think he is good with things that make a difference. I think he has slotted well into Test rugby."

The Australian paints a picture of a man who, like his players, is learning all the time.

In a year's time, two seasons into the job, he'll have completed his first World Cup, a time when the goldfish-bowl effect of the job will be magnified and, given the coach's record, the expectation on his shoulders will be high.

That tournament is the central point of Schmidt's three-year term and the process of building towards it started last June in Argentina.

Success there could propel him to guiding the Lions in his homeland, a good tour there could land him the All Blacks job. Not bad, for a man who has said he never expected to be a professional coach.

Tomorrow, he faces South Africa for the first time and the mood outside the camp is gloomy due to a long injury list and a lack of preparation. Still, 50,000 people will head to the Aviva Stadium in the hope Ireland can win.

While the coach says "optimism doesn't feature too much for me, realism does", he has helped deliver the hope back to Irish rugby. He has achieved his stated goal of 'developing a product people enjoy attaching to' through his side's performances and results.

If that has brought added expectation and a little more discomfort, you'd imagine it's been worth it.

Irish Independent

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