Clever Schmidt has a head start
Ireland's coach will only be interested in players who are smart enough to play his way, says Neil Francis
Take a look at Team One below. That is the team I expect to start in the Guinness series. Give or take, it is the strongest team available to Joe Schmidt. It covers all the bases provincially too: eight Leinster, four Munster, three Ulster. The ordained quotas pretty much observed along form parameters over the last season or so.
On paper, it looks competitive, although even the most jingoistic cheerleaders we have haven't ra-ra-ra'd their unrealistic expectations. Most rational people would expect that team to be a difficult proposition for anyone to take on. That's all.
Now take a look at Team Two. That is a decent-looking team as well. That, however, is the team that was gobbed on 60-0 by New Zealand in the summer of 2012. There are four changes in personnel: well Donnacha Ryan was our best second row and at that stage a shoo-in for the Lions; Kevin McLaughlin had just come off a fantastic season, culminating in yet another Heineken Cup win; Fergus McFadden, although not in Tommy Bowe's class, did manage to score in that Test series and Paddy Wallace (the Portuguese Minister for Tourism still hasn't refunded his holiday costs).
The personnel are going to be pretty much the same, the big difference is the new coach. It should be noted that Ireland were a Nigel Owens howler away from victory in a 22-19 defeat in Christchurch. The 60-0 defeat has garnered more talk time, which is typical of us as a nation, but just what did Ireland do in Canterbury in the second Test which got them so close, so close with a coach who was a rickshaw ride away from the home for the bewildered.
Our new coach has many qualities. He is very clever and he is very determined. Ambition, too, is burning brightly in his eyes. Kidney had all of these attributes – you could just never tell from the outside to which degree. Our headmaster from New Zealand doesn't feel the need to hide his inner desire.
Everyone knows that for Schmidt to succeed he needs to be able to translate what he did at club level and stretch it onto a blueprint for the international game. Irrespective of his undoubted abilities, that jump is far from assured.
We are confident that his objectives are certain and he won't be clouded in doubt as to the way he wants his team to play. There will be time constraints and even player constraints, but I think what will see him through is his intelligence.
If you look at some of the coaches of the leading sides in the world – well they are not liberally imbued with natural intelligence. Wazza is a successful coach but you get the impression he still talks back to his rice krispies. Ewen McKenzie, we were told, interviewed for the Irish job. There are two rules to observe when appointing a head coach: Rule Number 1 is never, ever appoint a tighthead prop as your head coach; Rule Number 2 is don't forget Rule Number 1.
Steve Hansen is a good rugby man, but I get the impression that if he took a year's holidays the All Blacks would still win all around them. That's right – if the little old lady who cleans the office was in charge, she'd be 12 for 12 for the season too. Stuart Lancaster? Philippe Saint-André? Jacques Brunel the Italian coach is clever. Graham Henry – the old dog was clever. Can't think of too many other Stephen Hawkings out there.
Our new coach is clever. Is it a back-handed compliment to say so after decrying the intellectual consistency of all the other incumbents? Clever is important because in my experience all over the world, I have seen strong, powerful, talented teams coached by idiots get beaten many times by teams that are on paper inferior but were coached by a smart, capable guy. This is particularly relevant in Ireland's case. Ireland have been in need of a double espresso of keen rugby intellect.
My team in the NFL are the New England Patriots. They have been phenomenally successful in the last decade. Their roster wouldn't always carry the greatest athletes, the fastest wide receivers, the biggest line men or the most aggressive line backers. They do have the best quarterback in the league in Tom Brady. However, lots of teams have quarterbacks with freakish talent yet they get nowhere. New England are consistently competitive in a highly emulous and cut-throat league because they have the smartest coach. Bill Belichick, outside of the New England area, is deeply unpopular. Maybe it is because he is icily calm at the pitch of the battle and too cerebral in the pre- or post-match for too many football fans.
One of the factors I have noticed about New England – and it happens with eerie consistency – is they always seem to put in big performances in the third quarter. They outscore and pull away from their opponents in this period because their coach on the hoof has the sang froid to work out what his opponents are doing and in the 15-minute half-time break he gets his team to react to the game change and put it into practice. It is amazing how often it happens.
Belichick, unlike Schmidt, can buy or sell players. What the American does though is not pick messers or players who give away stupid penalties. He picks players who might not be the biggest or the fastest but they are the smart ones who can buy into his vision and replicate the game plan on the field. Belichick's plan carried out by Belichick's type of player, everyone else is out.
Even though New England have not won a Super Bowl in a while, they did come in as runners-up twice but with teams that outperformed to get there. They thought their way rather than fought their way to the big dance.
Over the last few years there have been 32 changes to playing procedures on the field which have been solely attributed to Belichick. What were all the other coaches doing?
No more than people like Belichick, Schmidt has the propensity to think his way to a better team performance. The smart coaches have a holistic organisational ability. Schmidt has learned about risk from experience and can estimate probabilities accurately. He too has coaxed strong third-quarter performances out of his teams when it mattered. The third quarters in all of his Heineken finals saw changes of direction and greater application and impetus. The coach thought his way through problems and was smarter when he needed to be.
Schmidt's principal philosophy is no different from the All Blacks'. 'Let's get really good at doing the simple things well.' The autumn series will be instructive and no more so for the players. Schmidt's game plan is quite perceptible and requires players (intelligent players) to play to his system.
I think we will see a very different side from the autumn series take the field for the Six Nations. The prime stipulation is that no matter how unpopular or who they might be, if they can't or don't fit into the coach's system, they won't be playing in a green jersey – smart players only.