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Tony Ward: Schmidt's perfectionism has rubbed off on everyone


Second-guessing Joe Schmidt ahead of the Georgia clash isn't easy but we know the coach's preparations will be thorough. Picture credit: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

Second-guessing Joe Schmidt ahead of the Georgia clash isn't easy but we know the coach's preparations will be thorough. Picture credit: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

Second-guessing Joe Schmidt ahead of the Georgia clash isn't easy but we know the coach's preparations will be thorough. Picture credit: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

On Saturday, we were reminded of the most beautiful aspect to sport - its sheer unpredictability. All rational analysis in the build-up pointed to a South African win and, short of Ireland fronting up, a substantial one at that.

Well, we got it wrong as once again the outstanding coach that is Joe Schmidt worked the oracle. This was his eighth win in 11 games since taking control and while he is no magician what he brings to the table is a work ethic that few can match.

It can in part be traced to his teaching background but, much more than that, it seems to be innate. When he says that "the only thing that guarantees performance is the best preparation you can put yourself through, then hopefully that performance will be good enough to get the result," you know he means it.

He asks nothing of his players in terms of work ethic and commitment to that principle that he would not and does not demand of himself.

With that as the starting point for fellow coaches and players alike, is it any wonder that he is held in such high regard by almost everybody in rugby that he comes in contact with? What you see is what you get, not just in terms of hard graft and preparation but clever preparation at that. I don't know if he suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder around the house but when it comes to rugby and the training paddock, the amicable New Zealander is a perfectionist.


He has set the bar high and expectations will rise accordingly but that is why he is what he is and, without doubt, he's the All Blacks head coach in waiting. Rugby is as fickle now as any other professional sport, making Schmidt only too well aware of Babs Keating's oft-used line about "a slap on the back being just a couple of inches away from a kick in the arse".

He knows that a disappointing performance against the Georgians or indeed a repeat of the no-show against the Wallabies from a year ago and could see attitudes change rapidly. And yet. . .

And yet I feel Irish rugby folk are already well enough acquainted with its string-pulling head coach to appreciate just how fortunate we are that Wilson's Hospital proved his first port of call all those years ago.

It's early days on the road to Twickenham 2015 but in persuading Schmidt and his family to delay their return to New Zealand, Philip Browne and his team have given us the best chance possible working towards RWC 8.

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But, back to matters more immediate, and the visit of the Lelos (Georgia). Bear in mind we are already minus Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald, Cian Healy, Iain Henderson, Dave Kearney, Luke Marshall, Fergus McFadden, Marty Moore, Jordi Murphy, Sean O'Brien, Donnacha Ryan, Mike Sherry, Dan Tuohy, Andrew Trimble, Damien Varley and Rory Best. We could still be short Chris Henry, while Jared Payne seems certain to be rested, irrespective of his ankle healing given the six-day turnaround between Georgia and Australia.

Of those, you would say six, maybe seven - O'Brien, Healy, Henry, Trimble, Payne, Henderson and Best - would be in the match-day 23 at this point in time, but nonetheless for a rugby-playing nation of our size it is quite a hit to have to take. But Schmidt deals in what he has and prepares accordingly.

Second-guessing him ahead of Georgia is difficult in the extreme. The plan will be to mix and match, balancing new blood and experience, yet at the same time ensuring the spine is strong and the replacement bench fairly well-stocked just in case.

Despite Michael Bradley's involvement as assistant coach, Georgian rugby is about numbers one to eight in general and numbers one to three in particular. They make no apologies for that.

Where we are most vulnerable at the moment - primarily through injury - they are at their strongest. If the game started at loosehead and finished at tight, they would be world champions every time. The trick, even ahead of selection, will be in keeping the number of scrums to a minimum.

The case for the finishing front-row against South Africa - though low on caps - to start against Georgia is compelling, with maybe Jack McGrath in reserve but only if needs be. In the second-row, I would go with Devin Toner and Mike McCarthy, leaving Dave Foley to make his entrance on the hour. It would be nice to rest the entire back-row but on the assumption Henry is not ready, I would go with Ruddock (outstanding last Saturday) at six, Tommy O'Donnell at seven and Jamie Heaslip wearing the captain's arm band at eight.

At scrum-half, despite the temptation to roll with Kieran Marmion (a real star in the making), I would give Eoin Reddan the start he needs if he is to be up to speed for back-up against the Wallabies six days on. At out-half, Ian Madigan should get the nod, allowing for Gordon D'Arcy's return alongside and Robbie Henshaw moving one place out to 13.

The back three offers a bit of a conundrum. Should Rob Kearney retain his place on the grounds of experience and counter-attacking ability in the last line or should Felix Jones get the opportunity to show his reinvention as an orthodox attacking full-back with Munster is no flash in the pan? I would go with the latter and give the former St Andrew's and Seapoint No 15 the home start at this level he craves and on current form deserves.

On the wing, I would give Tommy Bowe the type of break I am quite sure he doesn't want and put fellow Ulster flyer Craig Gilroy in his place down the right, leaving Simon Zebo still in situ on the left.

Overlap of November Tests makes no sense

We're blue in the face rabbiting on about the IRFU and their insistence on AIL fixtures at the same time as Pro12 and European games. Well, can we now add the English, Welsh, Scottish, French, Italian, Australian, New Zealand, South African and every other governing body out there to our hit list?

Tell me I'm missing something, but does it take some form of rocket science for the powers that be to organise autumn internationals that don't overlap? Last Saturday, we had the Wallabies in Wales kicking off at the same time as the All Blacks at Twickenham. Following on, we had parallel kick-offs in Edinburgh and Dublin.

To that add cross-hemisphere Tests in Marseilles and Ascoli Piceno (Italy) too. And again this weekend we have virtually concurrent kick-offs in Italy (v Argentina), Wales (v Fiji) and England (v South Africa). At least Scotland v New Zealand at 5.30 and France v Australia at 8.0 are stand-alone, as is Ireland v Georgia on Sunday.

Silly question, but what's wrong with using Friday nights and Sunday afternoons to spread the load evenly throughout the weekend?

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