Sunday 19 January 2020

Irish crying out for Schmidt to get tourist visa

Joe Schmidt
Joe Schmidt

Hugh Farrelly

Consider the following ... Ireland do not have a specialist backs coach. Leinster coach Joe Schmidt is a specialist backs coach. Leinster have the most exciting backline in Europe made up of Irish players and Isa Nacewa.

While Ireland's attack improved in the Six Nations, the same players look far more threatening in blue than they do in green. Ireland have a three-Test tour to New Zealand, where they will have to be at their absolute peak to avoid humiliation. The IRFU are the ultimate paymasters and are tasked with doing what is best for the national team.

Simple isn't it? Second Schmidt for the summer tour, just as Ireland are prepared to do with Munster's Anthony Foley if Gert Smal cannot travel; just as they have already done with Greg Feek at Leinster; just as Wales do with Shaun Edwards -- bring in the specialist to do the specialist job. It makes sense on every level, even down to the fact that the Schmidt could stay on for a holiday when the tour is over.

Well, it should be simple. Following Saturday's casual dismissal of Cardiff's European ambitions -- in a match where Leinster used the second half to get in some tackling practice when 60 points were on offer had they so desired -- the question of provincial excellence versus international inconsistency was to the fore again.

There is a verve and self-belief about Leinster's Ireland contingent when they represent their province that is only occasionally replicated when they play for their country. This is in direct contrast to the hapless Welsh.

It is one of sport's great mysteries, up there with James 'Buster' Douglas beating Mike Tyson or Holland's failure to win a World Cup in the 1970s -- how the hell have Wales managed to win three Grand Slams when their regions are in such a state of disrepair?

And they are. Players are leaving in their droves, supporters are defined by their apathy (the Cardiff travelling support looked to number barely 1,000), the money is draining away (French clubs are offering Alex Cuthbert twice what Cardiff can afford, which is believed to be less than €100,000), and the coaching at club level is far below what they have access to under Warren Gatland when they go into national camp.

Ireland have a decent national coaching set-up under Declan Kidney, with some of the best expertise around, but, while it could be argued that they have access to the best forwards, scrum and defence coaches in the country, the best attack coach is in Leinster.

Les Kiss did a decent job doubling up in the Six Nations but it is time to streamline and Schmidt, as he proved with Clermont before taking it up a level with Leinster, has to now be ranked among the foremost attack coaches in the world. Some of the Leinster back play in Saturday was sublime, a perfect combination of precision passing, intelligent support play, invention, pace and ruthless finishing. Just as Bath stood transfixed as hell was unleashed upon them last December, Cardiff were flummoxed and, realising within the first half-hour that the game was up, more inclined to applaud than respond in kind.

It was a good evening for Leinster's prospective summer tourists. Luke Fitzgerald looked lethally sharp before his precautionary withdrawal with a hamstring twinge -- his negotiations with the union over a new contract should be a tad easier after this.

Jonathan Sexton has never looked more confident, running the show with a Lions-worthy assurance and producing the game's most exquisite moment (a no-look reverse flick to Fitzgerald at full tilt to set up Brian O'Driscoll's try).

O'Driscoll himself was reassuringly prominent alongside Gordon D'Arcy, Eoin Reddan did well against Cardiff's best player, Lloyd Williams, at scrum-half and Rob Kearney was Rob Kearney. The Australians will claim Kurtley Beale, the Kiwis Israel Dagg and maybe the English would go for Ben Foden, but there is not a full-back in the world who can touch Kearney at present -- two tries and an assist for Nacewa were just part of it.

Up front, Cian Healy and Mike Ross helped to eradicate their Twickenham hangovers with an excellent scrummaging display, with Healy superb in the loose.

Kevin McLaughlin, Jamie Heaslip and Sean O'Brien formed a vastly superior back-row, with Shane Jennings very impressive off the bench, while rejuvenated captain Leo Cullen and Brad Thorn went well in the second-row -- although the malfunctioning line-out provided scope for improvement.

Nothing that cannot be rectified and Leinster should not feel obliged to use Thorn as often as they did on Saturday. They have enough options to throw around him and let the All Black concentrate on what he does best -- muscling the opposition in scrum, breakdown and in the tackle.

There was not a whole lot to be said afterwards beyond a quiet satisfaction in a job well done and acknowledgment that there is still a lot to do.

Ross highlighted the fact that Clermont, with props Lionel Faure, Davit Zirakashvili and Vincent Debaty, will provide a far sterner scrum challenge than Cardiff, while stressing that Schmidt would force Leinster to raise their standards again.

"We have things to work on -- Joe is a perfectionist, he keeps the hammer down on us and it works," said Ross. "We know that this won't suffice in the semi-final. They will pose a lot more challenges.

"We have put ourselves in a good position, we are in a semi-final, we have to go away, but we are doing all we can to get into the final again."

Ambition

Captain Cullen was on a similar message but did allow himself a brief time out to reflect on the personal ambition of another trip to New Zealand in June.

"I'd love to go, yeah. But that's someone else's decision," said Cullen. "It's only my third game back now. I wasn't due to play 80 in the first game against Ospreys but that was the way the game panned out. I didn't pull up great to be honest so I was on the bench last week, but I was happy with my 25 minutes there. Again, I was probably feeling the heat again in the last 20 minutes (against Cardiff). It was kind of a quick game but it's another 80 minutes under my belt."

After the Six Nations disappointment, there have been calls for a more radical selection policy for the summer tour, but it will be hard to resist the claims of veterans like Cullen, D'Arcy and Jennings when they play like this.

Asking Schmidt to help out would be the real outside-the-box move and is extremely unlikely to happen for a variety of 'practical' reasons. However, when you think of a ticket of Kiss in charge of defence, Feek overseeing scrums, Smal/Foley looking after the pack, Schmidt doing the backs and Kidney lining up one of his trademark tilts at history, it is hard not get a little bit excited.

Unfortunately, with Ireland, you are forced to deal in dream scenarios. Clermont away will be far tougher but it is hard to see who can stop Leinster now.

No dreams here, Leinster are all about reality and, under Schmidt, it is a pretty beguiling reality.

Irish Independent

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