Thursday 20 June 2019

Inside the post-mortem - Former stars on what Ireland's players will have faced this week from Joe Schmidt

 

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt talks to the players. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt talks to the players. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

He will have slept, reasonably well for him, in Edinburgh's Balmoral Hotel last night. For his work is mostly done now.

A dizzying week that has spun on its own axis will, Joe Schmidt sincerely believes, culminate in quite a different sense than that which gripped all last Saturday in Dublin.

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Ross: ‘You’re pretty full-on from about 7am until 8pm. You need a breather because that’s not good mentally’ Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ross: ‘You’re pretty full-on from about 7am until 8pm. You need a breather because that’s not good mentally’ Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

If only because he knows there is always another game and another chance to reaffirm certain truths.

That the team he helms cannot be as underwhelming as they had been last week, but instead as excellent as they have been so often in the past.

That the lessons of painful defeat have been absorbed. That he can trust his players, and they him. And, most important of all, that he still trusts himself.

The result will be different because everything has remained the same. Because that is what has brought him this far. And it is much too late to change now, when everything in life has taught him that to change how he does things would separate him from his true self.

"It's not a reality check I believe we needed," said Schmidt on Thursday.

"It's a reality check for people externally that we are just as human as any other team. Things can go wrong for us."

This week, it was his job to help them go right.

A journey from retribution, through reconciliation and, today perhaps, redemption, began on the dais within the bowels of the Aviva Stadium with Schmidt tossing words such as "bullied" and "man-handled" with the ill ease of one attempting to speak a foreign language for the first time.

Shane Horgan had just finished work for Virgin Media One's Six Nations coverage.

"I'd never seen him so shell-shocked after a game like that before," he says of the public effacement. A brief window into what was to follow behind closed doors.

This 'Monday review' would be a video nasty with a difference, as the process would begin on Sunday.

As is his wont, Schmidt would have spent most of Saturday night poring over the evidence.

And he wanted to be ready well before the team review; there is always a player who will privately approach him before the quite public excoriation.

"You might go and have a sniff to see what's coming!" says his former charge, Mike Ross.

"Others might keep their heads down. Sometimes it's better to get in front of it, get the mea culpa in. But if you try to hide, well, you won't be doing it twice."

Schmidt will conduct proceedings with an assassin's smile.

Nobody is safe. "There would have been a few people levelled in the meeting, right?" says Ross.

"But Joe will usually give you a shot at redemption. And if you don't take it, that's when the axe might fall.

Schmidt never swears. "He wouldn't be a (Michael) Cheika style, kicking bottles around the place and breaking windows," says Ross.

"He'd be more crisp. Venom in his voice. Simmering. A bit of pointing. But no less scary. Because if Joe gets animated and exercised about something, it usually means you've made a grievous error."

Questions

Horgan spent only a little time with Schmidt before retirement but knows enough to recognise the questions pouring from His (erstwhile) Master's Voice.

"Where was the desperation to cover the back-field? How quickly did they get back on their feet? How eager were they to get in line for the tackle?

"How dominant were they when tackling or being tackled? How much body fight did they use to leave the ball behind in a good position? Who was tagging on to make the clear-out easier?"

The investigation is forensic, not frantic - Keith Earls stressed "he didn't have a cut off us or anything" - Schmidt will eke out the crucial errors but also reiterate the possibilities that existed.

"There's no point in killing everyone," says Luke Fitzgerald.

"They'll all be gutted. There would be a few choice words."

Schmidt wants his work in between games - either review or preview - to be as uncomfortable and pressurised as the real thing. Still, for every criticism, cuttingly delivered, the same player will receive twice as much validation for other work.

Trust will prevail. It is the entire edifice upon which this squad has defined itself. We are what we do.

"The trust word is interesting," says Horgan, who will be on analysis again for Virgin Media One again today.

"You saw it right through the game and that was one of the reasons he didn't change up things.

"Ireland weren't good but they were in the game for long times, if another score came in that third quarter, suddenly they're in a decent position.

"There is definitely trust there and that will remain. Teams lose games. He recognises they are good players but he will certainly make it known that they have to deliver."

Schmidt will know he needs to deliver himself. To question himself, as much as he remains faithful to his deep-seated principles that have served so well.

He met a few coaches on Wednesday - his squad had a day off; he didn't - including Dundalk boss Vinny Perth and Munster coach Johann van Graan.

They wondered whether he might be protected because of his past success.

"Protected? It doesn't protect you from anything. It certainly doesn't protect you from yourself."

The process remains the same but if anything it gets harder with the passage of time, not easier. And, in this year of all years, time is running out, ever so slowly.

For the rest of us, Wednesday is the midweek hump but for the players it is a day off. Blessed relief for most who return to brothers, sisters, parents, children, lovers.

"Camp is pretty intense," notes Ross. "You're pretty full-on from about 7am until 8pm in the evening. You need a breather because that's not good mentally. And Joe knows the game is mental as much as physical.

"There will be that hair-shirt for 24 hours but then you move on. Nobody died. We lost a match. Now another shot at redemption. That's the great thing."

It's not until Thursday that training had an identifiable spring, a lift in mood and energy. Until then, it was edgy, intense, which is fine too. But balance is key.

"You need a smile on your face," says Ross. "It's not a bad place to be, running around and getting well-rewarded for playing for your country. But you have a responsibility too."

It's a nebulous concept these days, finding the perfect physical pitch to accompany technical excellence.

In a squad like this, it must come from within; Schmidt can only facilitate it.

"The coach as motivator is gone or else the motivation is different now," explains Horgan.

"You challenge yourself to get the extra 1pc on and off the field. But the orator trying to inspire you to do it for the sick children in bed or whatever is gone."

Rather than being enervated, the week has energised Schmidt even as the pressures and stresses and injuries mounted.

Experience informs but cannot confirm.

"No, you can't bank on the past," says Horgan. "But if they win, they will shout and holler in that dressing-room. England shook them. So don't underestimate the value of a win today and what it will mean to them."

And Ross? "How many times have we lost under Joe? Not many. They'll bounce back. They always do."

In Joe we trust. But in Joe he must trust, too. Trust rules. Then, Schmidt can sleep, soundly.

"I tell you what," he puffs, "it doesn't get easier."

Genius rarely does.

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