Tuesday 20 March 2018

Flagging Ireland must turn to Schmidt

Battle for hearts and minds awaits as Leinster boss is clear favourite for ‘national’ service

Joe Schmidt
Joe Schmidt


Much of rugby is paradox. Action and reaction. Creation and destruction. Calculation and intuition.

The greatest side in European club rugby are possessed of such stunning beauty that it is sometimes difficult to acknowledge the paradoxical ugly beast that lies beneath.

Such that, for some like Richardt Strauss and Jamie Heaslip, Leinster's penalty try was pinpointed by them as a particular triumph, hailing from a formidable 20-yard rolling maul that looked for all the world like a human landslide.

The coaching staff, led by the publicly unflappable but often privately inflammable Joe Schmidt, will have nodded their agreement.

But dissent is never too far away, even amidst celebration. Ten minutes before the end of Saturday's final, Ulster were continuing to thrash their way from side to side, a blue wall of formidable defence blocking every potential escape to clear green space.

Those of us in the bleachers noted a huge swathe of unattended cabbage patch on Leinster's right wing. Ulster, continuing dumbly to ignore their semi-final strengths, didn't.

This morning, as Leinster's players attend their video review session, do you think Schmidt will have noticed?

"Yeah, from every positive we have, there's always stuff we can work on," smiled Fergus McFadden. "He applauds us when we do things well but points out the things that went wrong. They're our standards now."

As we greeted them, Leinster's suited players appeared for all the world as if they had just compiled a routine day behind a desk in the City; already, their hungry eyes are scouring the next opposition.

Now the history boys eye an unprecedented Irish league and cup double. The coach is similarly engaged. Professional rugby men cannot afford to stand still; the hunting pack are always coursing champions.

Schmidt's relentless quest for perfection will never be attained -- it is simply an impossibility. Pity the fool who aims to argue the point with the Kiwi. He revels in the investigation.

"Just the relentless pursuit of excellence," mused his captain, Leo Cullen. "He demands high standards. He's not joking, you know, he'll find plenty from the game today to look at.

"I know myself, I know there were things I didn't do right and it's great for players to have that realisation. It's like he's embedded himself in our heads when we're on the field."

What would Ireland give to have such hardware available to them this summer in New Zealand and, who knows, beyond?

Schmidt only has one year left on his Leinster coaching deal and, of all the smart business Leinster CEO Mick Dawson and co have done in recent years, signing him up for an extension will be the smartest yet. Leinster supporters are in thrall to the new dynasty that Brian O'Driscoll has confirmed is now firmly established in a side that only five years ago regularly succumbed to parody.

Many of their number care little for the fortunes of the national side, viewing, for example, the efforts of the IRFU to prematurely end the Irish domicile of Isa Nacewa and his young Irish family as a rallying cause to their provincial fidelity.


It's is a theme not necessarily exclusive to Leinster. That Twickenham witnessed a record Heineken Cup final crowd between two Irish club sides should act as a warning to the IRFU; the national team will play three internationals next month but, with Gaelic games, Euro 2012 and Olympics fever mounting, few will take notice.

Ireland's steady international decline since the 2009 Grand Slam stands in stark contrast to Leinster's unstoppable march to unprecedented heights; both sides share many of the same players, so what is the difference?

Many, including those in the corridors of power, will proclaim the beastly foreign invasion as the main enemy to international progress. Many more will point to the disparity in the coaching regimes in place at Ireland and Leinster. Hence the call for Schmidt to become involved, sooner rather than later.

Already, it would appear, he is long odds-on to succeed Declan Kidney when both men's current contracts expire next year. Leinster's players are already looking ahead -- just not quite that far.

"That's not for me to say," answered O'Driscoll. "Declan is the coach involved and he is doing a good job. He has got his own staff around him and I will leave that for you guys to write about."

Sean O'Brien has already embraced the idea of a temporary invite for Schmidt to aid a flagging national side, now marooned at eighth in the world rankings, so soon after their ascension to Europe's pinnacle.

As Kidney prepares to name an Ireland squad today that for many Leinster supporters bearing a thousand hangovers will be so largely irrelevant to their lives, O'Driscoll delivered an upbeat message. And, coming as it did at the same venue where Ireland were so embarrassingly routed just eight weeks ago, those whose national desires trump parochial concerns couldn't help but notice the irony.

"There will be disappointment from the Ulster lads but we have to look to the fact that we had two provinces in the Heineken final and use that confidence to channel it in the best possible way for the tour down in New Zealand," added O'Driscoll.

"We are fortunate that we have another game to think about this weekend. But as soon as we get into camp we will switch on to the job of travelling down there and trying to attain that first Test victory against the All Blacks."

O'Driscoll's Leinster captain, Cullen, effectively opted to close the door on his international career this season when deciding that the timing of surgery would be best to coincide with Leinster's, rather than Ireland's, ambitions.

Did the passion with which he spoke about once more winning this competition with the club he supported as a boy -- "it means the world to me" -- offer the slightest glimpse into a future of Irish rugby where club is more important than country?

It's a moot point, but at the moment the signs are pointing in only one direction. Ireland may need Schmidt sooner than anybody thinks. Leinster don't want to lose him. Another battle of hearts and minds awaits.

Cullen remains mystified as to why Ireland haven't pushed on from the platform provided by a Leinster side brimful with national talent.

"Of course this can help Ireland," he said. "I think Irish rugby is in a pretty good place. There has been a lot of frustration around the national team, it seems they're just not quite firing, for whatever reason."

That reason, so many people surmise, just may be the man who guides Leinster, one whose enthusiasm for his players is so utterly infectious.

"It is a hell of an achievement for this group of men," Schmidt said afterwards, admitting he was virtually too tired to be happy, a feat beyond the grasp of so many thousands of Leinster supporters.


"I just think that they get on so well together, they are a very tight-knit unit. They are such a coachable group as well, they really do want to try to be the best they can be and work really hard to do that."

Not just with Leinster, but Ireland too, one assumes. It seems not unreasonable to suggest that a team which needs all the help it can get should not ignore somebody on its doorstep who has extracted so much quality from largely the same bunch of players.

Kidney, whose own Heineken Cup glory days with a core of Munster players pre-dated his time at the helm of an unforgettable Grand Slam, will surely appreciate this point more than most. After all, rugby admits all types of paradoxes.

Irish Independent

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