Friday 15 December 2017

No room for panic attack if Chicago fire unfolds

Joe Schmidt views All Black games as a chance to learn from the best, rather than an ordeal

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

How appropriate that when Joe Schmidt is talking about how his team lost to the All Blacks three years ago the fire alarm should go off. He's in a Dublin hotel, tying up a few loose ends before the Ireland squad convenes ahead of training and travelling tomorrow.

By the time the tannoy goes into meltdown he has already been shown a picture taken in that post-match press conference in 2013. One where Paul O'Connell is fielding a question while his coach is staring at the floor. He could have been texting beneath the table, contacting a higher being to be beamed up. Rather he was replaying the sequence in his head.

"That question was probably a little bit about how it [the final try] happened," he says now. "Immediately, at the time, you're emotionally affected by what happened, whereas you can be more dispassionate further along and pick the holes that happened and some of the errors we made in those last phases of play where we had guys who just wanted the game to be over."

That last line illustrates perfectly the changes he expects in his side now. Closing a game out should be an opportunity to prove your worth, not a game of musical chairs where you find yourself with no seat when the music stops. It has been a long three years.

The contract extension process was long enough too. Having flagged it himself as something that should be sorted by summer's end it was only last week when confirmation was made. Schmidt insists it had nothing to do with negotiations with the IRFU, and everything to do with family matters.

While the outcome is welcome we're not sure if the timing is ideal. Ireland are plus 21 points on the handicap, which gives you an idea of what they're up against on Saturday. And if the bookies have underestimated that margin, in a game where Ireland fans unreasonably will expect another black ball finish, it won't be the ideal start to what you'd imagine will be the last leg of Joe Schmidt's Ireland journey. One week he signs on again; the next his team get tonked?

"It's just so exciting to play them (New Zealand)," he maintains. "They're such an iconic brand and they are at the peak of their powers. They are the most successful international rugby team there has ever been. Statistically that's easy to demonstrate - not just in the 18 consecutive wins but the margins they've had. A lot of people have complained about their performance last week not being at the same level - six tries to one against Australia who are ranked No 3 in the world? New Zealand have the highest ranking ever.

"That's the reality but it's so exciting anyway. People might ask, why would you set yourself up for that? Because if you don't take on those challenges - when we got the invitation from them - how do you get better? We play between 10-12 Test matches a year. They tend to play 14, maybe 15. They play at least half of them against the best teams in the world because the southern hemisphere dominate the top rankings. Therefore, are they getting further away from us? One of the ways to measure yourself and to progress is to play them. If you play average teams, you stay average. If you play better players, you start to work out a process, a preparation, a way of playing that might cope with what they deliver."

To face New Zealand twice, and Australia - with Canada as the breather on week two - in a November series is the toughest task any Ireland coach has taken on. If you're at the sharp end, then getting the next team on the field is your sole criterion. But Schmidt is doing so against a backdrop where the international game is in danger of becoming the club game under a different name, such is the prevalence of naturalised players on the circuit, all benefiting from the World Rugby regulation that requires you to hang your hat for only three years in the same place before you're part of the furniture.

Only recently did World Rugby decide to set up a working party to look at the issue, so who knows when or what they will deliver? The mood has clearly shifted, however. And another year into his tenure Joe Schmidt will have a fresh handful of overseas provincial players modelling for green.

"That is an over-simplification and an exaggeration of the current climate," he maintains, of the way the international game is following its club cousin. "The average professional rugby career would be, I don't know, five years probably. The best players go a lot longer than that but there are a lot of players who have glimpses of professional careers and they are finished, so for a player to commit three years and qualify somewhere is a pretty big commitment. At the same time in our current squad of 34 what number are we talking about? It's still massively indigenous players that dominate.

"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't conscious of it [the anti-chat]. I think it is difficult for me to comment on. I feel a bit like a plastic paddy myself because I am an Irish citizen, but you mentioned going home? [in relation to his contract]. It doesn't feel like that to me. There are, as I said, several pull factors that are mostly family based. Yeah, look it is something I am conscious of and I do think that if it's not a clear-cut decision you would tend to favour the indigenous player. I do. I don't know . . . that is probably not even a conscious decision - it's probably the fact that we want home-grown players."

And he wants rested players too. Schmidt is never slow to pick up on any perceived criticism of his operation. Sometimes this is plain unhealthy and comes across like he's trying not just to control the uncontrollable, but trying to shape to his own liking stuff that is amorphous and unimportant. Nothing gets as far up his nose, however, as the idea that he has the provincial coaches on speed dial and is pulling strings on their match days from his living room.

"Sometimes it is explicitly written as that, utterly incorrectly, but is that my most important focus? It can't be. My most important focus is just trying to make sure I have a good relationship with players that I keep trying to develop them as individual players, that I have a good relationship with provincial coaches, that I speak to them on a regular basis about who and how and what we are looking at. And where they are going with them and what feedback they have about a player and who is likely to be selected coming up so that it gives them a bit of an idea about who is going to be available. And in the end, if somebody does report something, that's their prerogative to give their opinion on how or why something occurred.

"It doesn't have to be accurate but it is their opinion and people will make their own minds up. I think it's a lot less important to be outspoken than it is to be working as hard as I can with the actual personnel who I can directly influence, which are the players themselves, and helping them progress."

It probably would have been even more apposite for the fire alarm to go at that point. Unlike the game in Aviva in 2013, at least we knew what was coming. "Sorry lads, it'll go off at 2.30," the manager had said as he was ushering us into the meeting room. "It's just a drill. You can stay where you are."

No panic then. Everyone knew their roles. Which is just what Joe Schmidt is hoping over the next four Saturdays.

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