Thursday 17 October 2019

Sinead Kissane: 'How Schmidt turned transition into great timing for World Cup bid'


Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

Five days after Ireland's 43-20 defeat to Argentina in the Rugby World Cup quarter-final, Joe Schmidt sat on the couch opposite Ryan Tubridy on 'The Late, Late Show' in October 2015.

This chat was Schmidt's chance to shape public conversation around Ireland's exit from the World Cup.

He spoke about how the loss of Paul O'Connell, Johnny Sexton, Peter O'Mahony, Jared Payne and Seán O'Brien was a factor in the defeat. He pointed to the poor start and regret over not making a decision on Sexton's fitness earlier in the week to give Ian Madigan more time.

Irish rugby was at a low point when Schmidt faced into the greatest challenge of his career in trying to rebuild the national team after that World Cup.

In January 2016, the provinces' love-in with the Champions Cup bottomed out: for the first time since 1998 no Irish team qualified for the quarter-finals. The 2016 Six Nations did little to change the theme of Irish rugby in a state of flux.

With Rory Best taking over as captain, Schmidt included debutants CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, Ultan Dillane and Stuart McCloskey in the squad.

But so low were expectations that it was easy to forget Ireland were going in as back-to-back champions with the prospect of a three-in-a-row barely getting an airing.

The 2016 Six Nations schedule showed little sympathy. A 16-all draw with Wales was followed by trips to Paris and London. Ireland lost 10-9 to Les Bleus for Schmidt's first championship defeat to the French.

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Even the match report on the IRFU website didn't bother with spin, noting: "There was a general lack of cutting edge in their (Ireland's) play".

Then came the 21-10 defeat to England which added up to Ireland's worst return after three games of the championship since 1998.

Schmidt conceded the team were in transition with the message of "don't lose faith".

Ireland were down to eighth in the world rankings - the lowest ranking ever under Schmidt and the position Ireland were in when he started the job in the autumn of 2013.

Despite those dog days, Schmidt and the players didn't let the championship bottom out. Ireland's tally was a grim two tries after three games.

They ran up nine in the second last game against Italy and signed off with a 35-25 win over Scotland for, as predicted by Schmidt, a mid-table finish.

As Connacht saved the season by winning the Pro12 title, it was around this stage that George Hook decided to call it: "Schmidt may well be the worst coach/selector in Irish rugby history."

It was Ireland's tour to South Africa that June which showed a spike in recovery. Making history, doing what no Irish team has done before, was fast becoming a theme under Schmidt. A 14-man Ireland beat the Springboks 26-20 in the first Test in Cape Town to become the first Irish team to win a Test in South Africa.

They should have won the series. Only 13 months after the World Cup exit, Ireland were beating the world champions 40-29 in Chicago. The 2017 Six Nations hit lows with frustrating losses in Scotland and Wales before Ireland regrouped to deny England a Grand Slam on the last day of the championship which would start a 12-Test winning run.

While the Lions took over that June, Schmidt was busy capping players like Jacob Stockdale and James Ryan on the tour to the USA and Japan. An unprecedented 2017-'18 season followed. You know how that played out.

So where did it all go right? "I feel we're an awful lot more prepared. I feel the way we look at the game and the way we execute our training week and the way we've executed our game-plan recently, I feel that those are massive factors," said Iain Henderson, who started the 2015 quarter-final defeat to Argentina and who starts today, this week. "I think we had all the right intentions back then but we weren't as accurate as we needed to be."

Since the 2015 Rugby World Cup quarter-final, Schmidt, who takes charge of Ireland for the 60th Test today, has used a total of 77 players and capped 36 new players.

Ireland now have two vice-captains in Sexton and O'Mahony who are both captains of their provinces thus giving them the invaluable experience of constantly dealing with referees and also transferring the standard which Schmidt demands in Ireland camp through to provincial level.

Depth What level of strength in depth has Schmidt created in each position? Look at the positions of those five players mentioned in the first paragraph.

Take O'Connell's former position - Tadhg Beirne isn't in the squad today, not to mention Devin Toner on the bench - enough said. In the back-row, the likes of Josh van der Flier and Rhys Ruddock aren't in the squad today - enough said.

What about centre? When Robbie Henshaw was injured against Italy this year, Chris Farrell came in and produced a man-of-the-match performance against Wales; when he picked up an injury, Garry Ringrose was back in time to play the last two games.

And Sexton's position? After Paddy Jackson's contract was revoked, it made little sense for the three out-halves who would be included in this November squad - Sexton, Carbery and Ross Byrne - to be all on the Leinster roster.

Increasing the flow of players between provinces like Carbery to Munster is nothing short of sensible practice.

In his first full four-year cycle (he only had two years to prepare for the 2015 RWC), Schmidt (and David Nucifora) are making it all about the national interest.

Then there's the influence of Schmidt's attitude. There was 39.59 gone on the clock when referee Paul Williams blew his whistle for a scrum to Ireland before blowing again for half-time in the second Test against Australia in Melbourne last June.

Straight away, captain Peter O'Mahony was over to Williams telling him he blew the whistle before the hooter went - that they should be allowed their scrum.

This was O'Mahony questioning a decision at half-time of the second Test in Australia irrespective of an incredibly long season. But this was history on the line. You fight for everything. It's the standard the players now demand of themselves.

Irish Independent

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