Thursday 14 December 2017

'I will feel pressure if we don't win autumn Tests'

New Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt in front of City Hall in Toronto ahead of their game against Canada on Saturday
New Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt in front of City Hall in Toronto ahead of their game against Canada on Saturday
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

"Even at the finish of Leinster, a lot of people said 'I can't wait to see you do that with Ireland'. It is not like that, it is a whole new ball game, a whole new level and it is a different group. You have to start from scratch."

With those words, Joe Schmidt's attempts to dampen down expectations around his new job began as he eases his way into the hottest seat in Irish rugby.

The new coach's CV bestows a special kind of pressure. Four trophies in three years at Leinster means people are looking for a similar return in green.

He is in Toronto this week as an observer, although it remains to be seen if he can stick to his commitment to allow Les Kiss full control.

The New Zealander is building a back-room team, to be completed by July, with plenty of time to prepare for a daunting first season in charge.

The schedulers have not been kind to Schmidt, who has little margin for error in year one. His season starts with a Samoa side beating all around them, then sees Australia and New Zealand visit Dublin before a Six Nations with London and Paris on the itinerary. Throw in a tour to Argentina and it doesn't get any simpler.


So, he is using his time in the US and Canada to observe and mingle, getting to know players who were previously opponents to be unpicked.

As he looks towards the season, he accepts that pressure will come – especially if November does not go to plan – but as long as there are signs of progress with the processes, he will be satisfied that his message is getting through.

"I keep asking myself the same thing. What is going to be the performance measure?" he said at the team hotel in downtown Toronto.

"Obviously, the Test matches are the performance measure and the black and white measure is the result.

"Trying to start with the team, how far along the road can I get if I want to change some shape to the team and with a group of players I don't know as well and I don't have as much access to as I did being a club coach?

"If our performances are good in those first games and we don't quite get the results, I know I will certainly be disappointed and feel pressure, but at the same time I will at least feel that we're going into a certain direction.

"Leading into the Six Nations, it wouldn't be a catastrophe, but it certainly would be a massive frustration for me and the supporters.

"I'll be trying to judge our performance – how effectively do we use the ball, how effectively did we look after it, trying to be process-orientated.

"Those processes are what we can control come the Six Nations.

"I can't control the bounce of a ball, I can try to control our training to try and make sure we can be as effective as possible."

An inability to achieve consistency was the key to his predecessor Declan Kidney's downfall. Since winning the Grand Slam in 2009, the Corkman's team soared with moments like beating Australia and England and coming within a score of a famous win over New Zealand last summer, before plummeting with the World Cup knockout at the hands of Wales, the 60-0 defeat to the All Blacks and this year's Six Nations losses.

Schmidt, who cast his eye over some new faces on Saturday night as an inexperienced Irish side struggled to a 15-12 win over the Americans in the Houston heat, believes that achieving a more regular high performance will come from improving the depth available and picking the right coaching ticket.

"The first thing is to get a really good coaching team together – I don't know everything about the game," he said.

"Look at the size of me, I never went into contact. Those sorts of things, you do that first and then it is a continuity of progression. And with that, that's where the provinces are doing a good job of keeping people going forward and developing.

"We have got to have those guys providing the depth and continuity in preparation and selection, but at the same time a real competitiveness in selection so that there is an edge to them. It is a mixture of that.

"As I said when I first got the job, I haven't done this before."

With 11 players either with, soon to join, or departed from the Lions and others rested or injured, one of the conversations that has dominated after Saturday night is how many of these players who are on this Ireland tour will be around come November.

Five players made their Test debuts on Saturday night, three more made their first starts. Robbie Henshaw and Stuart Olding were playing when they could have been aiding the fine U-20 efforts in France. Could they have a part to play as early as next season?

"It's hard to say," Schmidt said. "I've seen bits of them now which has been great but there are also guys I know who have the experience and have successfully competed at the top level.

"I think what is important – and it's really evident from last season's Six Nations – is that you've got to have depth in positions. If you don't have depth, then you're always vulnerable.

"The other great thing about being on tour is just establishing a bit more of a rapport with the players, getting to know them as people a little bit. Those two young guys (Henshaw and Olding) look like two top kids."

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