Tuesday 17 September 2019

Vincent Hogan: 'The difference with Joe Schmidt is that he doesn't just coach players - he re-wires them'

Ireland boss unimpressed despite record 10th straight home win as his troops fall well short of usual standards ahead of ultimate test

10 November 2018; Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt prior to the Guinness Series International match between Ireland and Argentina at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
10 November 2018; Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt prior to the Guinness Series International match between Ireland and Argentina at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Just at the end of Saturday's post-match press conference, Joe Schmidt was invited to personalise the dark thunder now rolling Ireland's way. Was it, someone asked, the "great challenge" of his coaching career to line up the All Blacks in his crosshairs?

With a strike rate of one from three shots at them, were these games against his homeland the ones that tested him more than any other now? And Joe just bashfully blew out his cheeks, reminding the questioner that "You know… it's so little to do with me."

Jordan Larmour
Jordan Larmour

Seldom has humility delivered a greater calumny.

If Schmidt isn't a devout narcissist by now (and he palpably isn't), surely the only reasonable question to ask is: why? When he eventually chooses to leave Ireland, there isn't a Tier One nation in rugby that won't be attracted to the idea of employing him, his own included. Because the thing about Schmidt is that he doesn't just coach rugby. He re-wires people.

In the build-up to that famous Chicago win of two years ago, Ireland's Friday captain's run was sloppy and unfocused. Rob Kearney told afterwards of how Schmidt "absolutely ripped into" the players for their carelessness. That oft recycled line of his "you are what you repeatedly do" underpins a coldly unambiguous management style.

So imagining this morning's video session, it's hard to escape the sense of a pretty brutal hearing for some.

Saturday's win concealed a litany of flaws that will have offended the coach. True, there were cobwebs to contend with (this team effectively not having played together for six months) and the not so insignificant factor of Argentina pitching up as worthy, quarrelsome opponents.

With the Pumas, poetry and murder go arm in arm. Light and shade. They summon a multiple of small beauties, ingenious running angles, magically dexterous hands, yet always with a tendency to be bad-tempered and indisciplined too. They leave more in a tackle than they need to. They trash talk a lot. They wilfully yank tails.

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And, it's crystal clear, they don't especially like Ireland.

This was their ninth defeat from nine visits to Dublin and they've long since passed the stage of being comforted by tight scorelines. You could see that in Mario Ledesma afterwards - the irritability of a coach whose regrets would be indexed on more than a single page now.

Because they'd lost yet again to Ireland, and it didn't feel like it had been Schmidt's Ireland.

The real gift the New Zealander has bequeathed this squad is a resolve to be endlessly questioning, self-critical. To expect more. Yet, all the qualities he covets - order, discipline, tactical concentration - they all just flickered fleetingly here.

In fact, Ireland looked the antithesis of what Schmidt demands them to be. Restarts and lineouts were a constant issue, the team looking fragile in the air. Too many tackles were late, passes dropped, running lines mangled. At times, even Jonathan Sexton's kicking looked almost absent-minded.

And, behind him, Jordan Larmour was like a butterfly trapped in a jar.

Only the scrum protected Ireland and that was no ground-shaking triumph, given the callowness of the Pumas' front row. So the night became a symphony of grumbles and groans and humming conversation, as if the show presented some kind of binary conflict between trying to win a test match and delivering a convincing rehearsal for next weekend.

Actually, truth be told, a distinct indifference squats over November internationals these days unless those ogres in black are involved. The games can have the feel of forced drum-rolls. There's an endless traffic to the bars, punters clucking like self-satisfied hens when the show is pleasing, but quickly growing uninterested when it sags.

And Argentina would have felt that on Saturday. Resented it even.

For an old front-row warrior like Ledesma particularly, the irony of a team of his being bullied in the tight (all three Irish tries materialised from a scrum platform) won't have been easy to absorb. But, as he explained after, he was asking boys to be men here before he reasonably had a right to.

Schmidt knew that too, so the idea of his team taking refuge in a set-scrum mis-match will undoubtedly have blackened his mood away from the TV cameras and microphones.

Like it or not, a significant asterisk that settled beneath Ireland's one and only victory over New Zealand was the absence of the two great All Black locks, Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick, in Chicago. Yet, as Devin Toner revealed to Tom English in No Borders - Playing Rugby for Ireland, "My abiding memory is that they were a hair's breadth from every single one of our lineouts. We won the ball, but they were a fingertip away every time."

So, as constituted last Saturday, Ireland's lineout would be brutalised next weekend.

What went wrong? Iain Henderson's take was a curious "They (Argentina) defended differently maybe to the way we expected them to defend. We still won quite a bit of ball, probably didn't get the opportunity to disrupt their lineout as much as we'd have liked to.

"They ran a fair few four-mans, which they haven't done in their previous few games."

Whatever, as the game evolved, Ireland's running became increasingly lateral and the Pumas, tiring visibly, increasingly vexed. Still, there was just a solitary point between the sides when, Hallelujah, Peter O'Mahony managed a lineout steal and, after a few phases, Luke McGrath danced inside the Argentina captain, Pablo Matera, under the posts.

Thereafter, Ledesma's men knew the game was largely up and Schmidt's that an awkward week was looming.

The Ireland coach's personality has many layers, yet none of them invite flippancy in the business of forensics. When he talked after of "still bleeding" from the All Blacks defeat of 2013, that day Ireland spurned a 19-0 lead, it was a rare moment of illuminating candour from a man programmed to ration any access to his inner self.

Saturday's was Ireland's tenth successive Test victory at Lansdowne Road, a record. Yet that didn't merit a single mention in Schmidt's press conference. A measure again, maybe, of how he changes things. Changes people.

"At times, it's almost like he's a voice in my head," Sexton tells English in No Borders.

The point about Schmidt is precisely that. On his watch, nobody is allowed slacken or stand still. Nothing is missed through carelessness. On Saturday, Ireland played untidily.

On Monday, that means trouble.

Competition: Independent.ie has two pairs of tickets to the sold out Ireland vs New Zealand game at the Aviva this Saturday. Enter here.

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