Monday 11 December 2017

Alan Quinlan: Why Schmidt needs to take leaf out of Alex Ferguson's book

Ireland coach is as driven as Fergie, but if he is to be as successful in the future as he has been in the past, then he needs to evolve his approach the way United legend did

Joe Schmidt looks set to change his ways. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt looks set to change his ways. Photo: Sportsfile
The cameras keep picking out Alex Ferguson whenever there's a moment of crisis at Old Trafford (Photo: PA Wire)

Alan Quinlan

He reminds me of Alex Ferguson.

The drive. The passion. The attitude. The work ethic. The environment they created. The similarities are endless. Under Ferguson, players knew they shouldn't cross him, that they had to give 100 per cent to the cause every single day, not just in every single game.

The cameras keep picking out Alex Ferguson whenever there's a moment of crisis at Old Trafford (Photo: PA Wire)
The cameras keep picking out Alex Ferguson whenever there's a moment of crisis at Old Trafford (Photo: PA Wire)

Yet they knew he was fair and that if they did their job, they'd be okay. Problems only arrived at their doorstep when they slacked off.

Is Joe Schmidt any different to that? Not from what I've heard. I have been told he does not sleep a lot during Ireland camps - that he's late to bed, and an early riser, that he is constantly studying videos, continually asking questions because he is always seeking answers.

What the world sees is the smiling image of him on our television screens, the polite, measured responses he gives to interviewers' questions. But what the world doesn't see is how wary his players are of him.

He can be tough. If someone makes a mistake, he calls them up on it. And we aren't just talking about the weaker players in a group. Senior players get the treatment too. No one is immune. And that stems from the fact he is a very intelligent guy whose drive to be successful has meant that he has created an environment in the Ireland camp where perfection is sought after.

All of which is fine when a team is winning because you get a good buzz about the place. No one queries whether too little time has been spent on lineout moves, or defence work.

But when your form is indifferent, doubt creeps in. International rugby has a sink-or-swim culture. You arrive in camp, are expected to know your role, improve on your weaknesses, limit your mistakes and do your job. Maybe that sort of place is not for everyone but some guys absolutely love that environment.

As for me, I would have wanted a personal touch, to know the coach in charge of me cared about the person and not just about the performance, because that sort of thing made a difference to me, and made me want to go the extra mile for him.

Is Joe Schmidt the type of coach who'd seek a player lacking in confidence so that he would put an arm around his shoulder and make him believe in himself more? I would have driven the man mad if he had have been in charge of me.

I was impressed, however, to hear him say he is considering a change of approach. And I was struck by his honesty and his openness to change.

After all, he could quite easily hide behind his CV. He could point to the approach that yielded six trophies in his first five years in Ireland. "Why should I change any of that?" he could ask.


Then, just as easily, he could point at Ireland's injury list, to the absence of the Kearneys, Zebo, Bowe, Payne, Fitzgerald, Earls, O'Mahony, O'Brien, Henderson, McCarthy, Healy, Ross for some, or all, of this campaign - and suggest the defeats stemmed from a lack of luck rather than a lack of direction.

But admirably he hasn't passed the buck. He is seeking to evolve and improve because deep down he must know that this is what the best coaches have always done. Ferguson did. When he spoke, after his retirement, he candidly admitted that he questioned the way he communicated with players during his fallow years.

As time moved on, and the personality and nationality of the players he coached changed, he came to appreciate that he couldn't chat to a young Cristiano Ronaldo mourning the loss of his father in the way he could scream at Gordon Strachan, Mark McGhee, Alex McLeish or Willie Miller in 1980s Aberdeen.

Is this what Schmidt is beginning to realise when he says: "I don't know if my approach is working."

Is he conscious of the fact that many of his players are as wary of him the way a schoolboy would be of a strict headmaster?

Deep down, I don't believe Schmidt is the type of person who would consciously seek to create a climate of fear. But if he has done so, then he needs to tweak things.

Sometimes there is not a lot of fun going on in camp. Having said that, there are certain players who love the way he runs things and can't get enough of Schmidt's methods. They love the fact it is rugby, rugby, rugby, that the video sessions are educational, the skills sessions are so good, and that the extra gym sessions allow them get their fitness to peak levels. What works for some may not work for others, though.

Certain guys need a release from the pressure. Test match weeks are intense - because they know that if you win, you will enjoy the best two days of your life and if you lose, you will endure the worst 48 hours imaginable. That leads to crankiness amongst the squad as match-day approaches. In this context, you have to facilitate the player who needs some time-out.

Now if I am painting a picture of a joyless atmosphere under the Schmidt regime then bear in mind that no one who has played under him has ever come up to me and said, 'f**king hell, I am so f**king unhappy playing for yer man'. The truth is players like Joe. Respect him. But players are also young men. They need to be free to turn off the pressure cooker for a bit.

So when Schmidt says, 'There are always some things you can reflect on when you are trying to raise the bar', you'd hope he'd adjust his settings slightly to accommodate the freer spirits in his panel.

Significantly, he has made it clear that he will decide on his Ireland future after this summer's trip to South Africa. And to me it's patently obvious that his decision to extend his contract until after the 2019 World Cup, or, alternatively, to walk away at the end of next season, will be based on how the team performs on that three-match tour.

As a coach, you learn so much about players when they are operating at the top level, discovering if they handle the pressure, if they are capable of delivering against the best in the world. And for Schmidt to stay, he needs to know the group he is in charge of can produce the goods in the future. If he feels they can, he'll more than likely stay.

Yet other factors may persuade him to leave. He is a New Zealander, so the attraction of taking on the All-Blacks job - once Steve Hansen goes - cannot be discounted. Plus, he is a family man. Surely he must be asking himself if he can continue to keep dragging himself away from his wife and children for eight-week periods when the international calendar demands his time. Would a club job - where he can work on a day-to-day basis with his players - attract him again?

I wouldn't say he has doubts about this Ireland team but I would suggest there are fears. Is the talent still there? Can Garry Ringrose emerge and become the new Drico? Today, though, I have no doubts. We can outmuscle Scotland and beat them. We need to because a win represents a reasonable Six Nations. Defeat, though, means you have failed the exam. And South Africa is not a place you want to go for your re-sits.

Irish Independent

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