Trevor Hogan: Schmidt's clinical approach gives Irish a fighting chance
Attention to detail will be the secret weapon in showdown that defines Ireland's autumn series
Joe Schmidt is routinely referred to as the best coach in the northern hemisphere. A mixture of circumstances has now combined to present him with the single biggest challenge of his international career. A total of 17 internationals injured, along with the open wound left after Brian O'Driscoll's retirement, leaves him with a completely untried centre partnership of Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne facing into the first fixture of the season.
With this inexperience at such pivotal positions, Schmidt will need every aspect of his widely recognised abilities to prepare to face a rampaging South African side, intent on making a statement ahead of the 2015 World Cup.
So, what exactly are the skills Schmidt will draw on to help this squad, with these new faces, achieve such a mammoth task?
A flashback to Schmidt's first season with Leinster might help shed some light. It's Tuesday on the week of an early-season Pro12 match for the side who are training in their Donnybrook headquarters at Riverview.
In the aerobics studio, usually used for injury prevention and rehabilitation classes, the entire squad of forwards are gathered, with the starting pack standing in a lineout formation.
But the forwards are not here to perform the usual lineout routines. Instead, under the guidance of Schmidt and Jono Gibbes, the players replicate their roles after the lineout has taken place.
Traditionally, it's the role within the lineout that's the priority for forwards. But, here, their actions afterwards are being emphasised as equally important as that which goes before. The commands are clear and direct; 'Who hits the first midfield ruck? Who carries the ball in the next phase? What changes if the ball is won in each different area of the lineout? When we are on the edge of the opposition '22' what play are we using?'
Of course, I and the other players have experienced this broad type of planning and structure before under various coaches. But never before have the consequences of getting your job wrong been so stark. "Know your role" is the mantra. Or you are gone.
The repetitions are methodical. Never before have we experienced this level of scrutiny, or crucially, this level of preparation being performed off the pitch. The goal is to reinforce an unprecedented level of accuracy for when we are back on the grass.
It's not just the starting 15 who need to know their jobs. The subs have the spotlight firmly shone on them to ensure they know what they're doing. Because when you get on to the pitch, there's no second chance.
This week, with so many players unavailable, Schmidt's level of preparation will be both required and tested to the limit. With no second-tier nations to offer a trial run, the new player combinations need to be instantly ready from the outset against the form team in world rugby.
This offers an insight into why Henshaw and Payne have been chosen at centre. The fact that Gordon D'Arcy couldn't train last week, and wasn't fully available at the start of the week, meant that he wasn't in a position to replicate the vital patterns and shape Schmidt will have identified for the Springboks.
This ultimately tipped the balance in selection. The value Schmidt places on training and on being accurate on the pitch cannot be underestimated. Henshaw and Payne have that extra bit of time working together on the shape that Schmidt wants against the Springboks.
There would have been no other choice for the meticulous Schmidt.
Mike Ross's selection is slightly different. Despite similarly being unable to train fully, the fact is, there is a mini injury crisis at tighthead prop.
Despite all the attention on South Africa's new-found expansive game plan, Schmidt knows that the biggest challenge his side faces tomorrow will be at the scrum. Judging by the metres-long tracks of grass carved out on the back pitch of Stradbrook in Blackrock, where the Springboks trained this week, the Springboks are targeting this area.
On Tuesday, the South Africans spent 30 minutes on the scrum machine and 15 minutes 'live' scrummaging - indicating their focus is still firmly on their traditional strengths.
Schmidt, above all else, is a pragmatist and knows this. With Nathan White and Marty Moore ruled out, he is aware of the value of having Mike Ross on the pitch, ready to face Tendai Mtawarira.
At centre, the situation isn't so straightforward. Outside of 9 and 10, the two centre positions are the most pivotal for implementing a team's attack and defensive shape. To have his partnership regularly running in tandem over the last two weeks was essential. For Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne the pressure will be intense.
They are aiming to replace the greatest Irish sportsperson, while playing against the most dangerous South African backline in a generation. But the level of scrutiny they have been under from Schmidt, not just for the last 11 days - the last 18 months - will go some way to providing them with the strength to cope.
What Schmidt's relentless emphasis on detail, the systematic, clinical preparation will mean is that Henshaw and Payne's focus will be purely on the processes involved in their job. Nothing else. All emotion is removed. What's left is your role, your job. In games of huge magnitude, this pared-down mindset can be deeply reassuring.
Despite all the injuries and minimal preparation time, Schmidt knows there will be no excuses. This game will define the Autumn Series for Ireland. Regardless of the adversity, his unique skills of preparation mean Ireland can still deliver and beat South Africa tomorrow.
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