Sunday 9 December 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Joe Schmidt's legacy as greatest Irish coach is secure - but the best is yet to come'

‘There is no higher achiever in Irish sport or international rugby yet Joe Schmidt seems entirely devoid of ego or the desire for self-aggrandisement’. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
‘There is no higher achiever in Irish sport or international rugby yet Joe Schmidt seems entirely devoid of ego or the desire for self-aggrandisement’. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Joe Schmidt changed everything for Irish rugby. The team he inherited five years ago had won three of its previous ten Six Nations games and dropped to a lowest ever ninth in the world rankings. The season finished with three Six Nations defeats on the trot, our worst run ever, including a 22-15 loss to an Italian team who finished above Ireland in the table.

That Ireland team which lost to Italy included eight players who featured in our recent win over the All Blacks as well as Conor Murray, Seán O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip and Brian O'Driscoll. Under Declan Kidney, Ireland had become rugby's great underachievers.

The impression that this team was going nowhere seemed to be confirmed when, in Schmidt's second match as manager, Ireland lost 32-15 to Australia and were flattered by the margin of defeat. A day earlier the Aviva had been the site of euphoria when Ireland's new managerial dream team of Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane had presided over a 3-0 win against Latvia.

A new era had apparently dawned for the soccer team. Their rugby counterparts seemed to be facing a long climb back towards international respectability. Yet just eight days later Ireland roared into a 19-0 lead after 18 minutes against the All Blacks before losing 24-22 in heart-breaking fashion. It might have been a defeat but something different about the Irish performance announced that The Age of Schmidt had begun.

It has not always been plain sailing for the manager. Even when winning the Six Nations in 2014 and 2015, our first consecutive titles in 66 years, Ireland were criticised for their caution. The eight tries scored in 2015 was by some distance the smallest total ever by a Six Nations winner.

England dethroned Ireland in 2016 under the bullish new stewardship of Eddie Jones. When they sewed up the title with a round of games to spare the following year, they seemed poised to repeat the dominance of the Clive Woodward era.

Ireland's meeting with England at the Aviva in last year's Six Nations may be the pivotal game in Schmidt's reign. The home side had already lost to Scotland and Wales and another loss would have cast enormous doubt over its direction. Instead, Ireland won 13-9 and have since grown in strength with England going into reverse.

That game, like the victory over the All Blacks a couple of weeks back, was founded on an inspirational performance by Peter O'Mahony, in many ways the emblematic player of the Schmidt era. Neither the flashiest nor most obviously gifted performer, O'Mahony's great strengths are controlled ferocity, utter fearlessness and an enormous diligence about doing his job properly. Few players wring every last drop out of themselves in the same way. Schmidt displays the same qualities as manager.

This has been the greatest year in the history of Irish rugby, and perhaps the finest ever enjoyed by any team from this country. First came a third ever Grand Slam, more difficult than that of 1948 because there were more teams to be beaten and of 2009 because France and England needed to be beaten away.

The triumph in Australia was a first southern hemisphere Test series victory in 39 years. Such a result would have been unthinkable before Schmidt took charge. When Ireland beat South Africa in Cape Town two years ago, it was the first win over one of the Big Three by a touring Irish team since 1979. Ireland had gone 0-25 with the last of those defeats a 60-0 humiliation at the hands of the All Blacks in Wellington. That day the two teams seemed to belong to two entirely different rugby universes.

If you'd told Rob Kearney, Rory Best, Cian Healy and Seán Cronin, who all figured that day, that six years later they'd have played in two victories over the All Blacks they'd hardly have believed you. At times the change wrought by Schmidt can seem miraculous.

There was a slightly freakish feel about the first of those victories. The contention that the All Blacks had been caught on the hop in Chicago was lent weight by the ease of their victory in Dublin a fortnight later. Two weeks ago things were different. Ireland's Grand Slam and victory in Australia had put us on the radar of an All Blacks side keen to impart a demoralising lesson before next year's World Cup.

Yet the Irish victory did not require everything to go right for us or involve an enormous amount of desperate last-ditch defending. The All Blacks never had a try-scoring opportunity as clear as the Irish one lost when the ball slipped away from Rob Kearney on the line. Ireland won without Conor Murray, Robbie Henshaw, Seán O'Brien and Dan Leavy. They seem a better team than the All Blacks right now.

This is where Joe Schmidt has put Ireland. Now he's leaving. Despite many optimistic declarations about the coaching genius of Andy Farrell, we don't know what kind of a manager Schmidt's successor will be as he's never been a manager before. The figure of the backroom genius who wilts when thrust into a leading role is practically proverbial. Farrell may do well, but people like Joe Schmidt do not come along often. The feeling of loss pervading Irish sport at the moment is not wholly due to sentimentality.

That's because Schmidt seems not just an exceptional coach, but an exceptional character. In the film Steve Jobs, the titular character's old buddy Steve Wozniak finishes an argument between the pair by shouting, "It's not binary. You can be decent and gifted at the same time." Steve Jobs is a great movie, but its writer Aaron Sorkin seems to favour Jobs' contention that in order to excel it helps to occasionally act the asshole.

This fallacy is even more pervasive in sport than it is in business. Joe Schmidt's opposite number in England certainly seems to have fallen for it. Yet Schmidt is Exhibit A in the case against.

There is no higher achiever in Irish sport or international rugby yet the man seems entirely devoid of ego or the desire for self-aggrandisement. In defeat he is decent and dignified, in victory lacking in triumphalism or bombast. His dealings with media and public are distinguished by a plain-speaking courtesy. Spin does not rear its head nor mean-spiritedness either.

In showing you can maintain the highest standards in your professional life while treating people with respect, Schmidt is an important figure. His behaviour is one of the most impressive things about him. It says everything about his standing that when he said he was quitting coaching to spend time with his family everyone believed this meant he was quitting coaching to spend time with his family.

Schmidt's essential modesty is shown by his refusal to say 'I told you so' when he gets decisions right. Yet he's consistently made the correct calls while flouting conventional wisdom. This time last year Rob Kearney seemed to be in decline and when he opened the Six Nations unconvincingly it seemed Schmidt's loyalty to an old warrior had gone too far.

Yet as the tournament went on Kearney didn't just recover his form but rose to new heights in the Irish jersey. When Schmidt selected James Ryan for the opening Six Nations match in Paris, it looked a big ask for a youngster who still hadn't played for Leinster. The rest is history.

Jacob Stockdale also looked a bit raw for the game in Paris and was exposed defensively in that game. But Schmidt kept faith and has been rewarded by the Ulsterman's emergence as the world's most dangerous winger

This year Rory Best was the player Schmidt seemed to be persisting with for too long. But against the All Blacks not only did Best have a splendid game, his hit on Brodie Retallick embodying Ireland's obduracy, but his replacement Seán Cronin's struggles throwing in to the lineout showed why the Ireland manager has resisted the clamour to promote the Leinster hooker.

Schmidt's loyalty to Devin Toner, apparently ripe to be superseded by more dynamic second-rows, has been rewarded by a renaissance which will probably make the lineout specialist an automatic World Cup first choice. 

Watching Ireland under Schmidt is to experience the rare comfort which goes with knowing a team is in the hands of someone who knows what he's at. The players exude the relaxed and confident air which goes with total belief. One of the most remarkable things about Stockdale's try against the All Blacks was that it began with a chip over the head of an opponent only a couple of minutes after a similar kick had almost given away a try. To gamble like this a second time a player must know the manager will not make a show of him if things go wrong. Stockdale knew Joe Schmidt has his back. All the Irish players do.

Now Joe Schmidt enters perhaps the most difficult period of his reign. Ireland are top of the heap now, there to be shot at with all the pressures that brings. Yet you'd prefer to be in our position than anyone else's.

Joe Schmidt's legacy is secure. He is the greatest Irish team manager of all-time. But the best is yet to come.

The Toy Show is the All-Ireland of television, and Scott, Grace and Michael are the MVPs

Scott Lowe and Michael O’Brien are my players of the week. No-one else comes near. Scott is a nine-year-old from Athlone who gave a bone marrow transplant to his six-year-old cousin Grace who was battling leukaemia because, in his own words, “I wanted to save her life.” Michael O’Brien is a visually impaired 11-year-old from Kerry with the dapper dress sense and laid-back wit of a young Frank Sinatra.

The nation encountered both of them on Friday night’s Late Late Toy Show and it’s a meeting we won’t forget for a long time. I felt proud to share a country with Scott, Grace, Michael and everyone belonging to them.

So what’s the sporting connection? Well, both of these wonderkids got to meet their sporting heroes. Tadhg Furlong, Seán O’Brien and Rob Kearney popped in to meet Scott. We get lots of praise for winning matches, Kearney told the kid, but you’re the real hero here. Then they gave him a jersey autographed by the Irish team and invited him to meet the team before next year’s Six Nations match against France.

They’re very proud of the Lowes in Athlone where Scott was mini-marshal of this year’s St Patrick’s Day parade and the local community has gotten behind fundraising efforts for the girl who’s become known as Amazing Grace.

Young Michael’s sporting hero is Davy Fitzgerald. So Davy arrived to the child’s obvious delight, bringing a Wexford jersey with him and asking Michael if he’d address the team before their National Hurling League games. The youngster’s joy was complete when Ryan Tubridy offered him two tickets for next year’s All-Ireland final. “How can you get them? It’s not even 2019, it’s more than nine months like. I will enjoy that, boy. Trust me I will.” Michael also informed the host that the Kingdom were going to take the Sam Maguire from Dublin next year. Kerrymen gonna be Kerrymen, as they say.

Looking at how much these meetings meant to those remarkable kids, it struck me what an enormous part sports stars play in children’s lives. Adults in general and sportswriters in particular probably shouldn’t worship them in the same way, but neither should we lose sight of the emotional connection so many people feel with them and the way these stars touch so many lives with a bit of magic.

Neither should we forget how decent most of these stars are. Young men and young women for the most part, they are always ready to lend support to a good cause. More and more of them use their fame as a platform to do good in their communities and help out those who need it most. They do a lot more in this respect than many of their most vociferous critics.

For many children, leading sportspeople are the closest thing to real-life superheroes. Given that this is so, it’s no harm for those stars to bear in mind the famous dictum from Spiderman, “with great power comes great responsibility.” But by and large the dreams and illusions of our children are in good hands.

Maybe you think I’m being a bit sentimental. But we’re all sentimental about something. The cynic is the most sentimental soul of all. He’s deeply sentimental about his own sense of self-righteousness.

Slagging off Ryan Tubridy is nearly a national sport, but when I watch the man doing his thing on the Toy Show I feel the admiration I always feel when watching a seasoned professional making a difficult task look very easy.

Watching the Toy Show with my twin daughters, I was conscious of my kinship with everyone else all over the country watching at the same time. At a time of global turmoil and contention we’re lucky to live in a place where a quiet decency is the prevailing note of everyday life.

It seemed a familiar feeling, this sense of a rapt nation glued to the box, of one big community united in enjoyment of what was going on and curiosity about what was going to happen next. And then it hit me. The Late Late Show is the All-Ireland final of light entertainment.

Hope you enjoyed it. I wasn’t crying, you were crying.

The last word: Carlsen crowned king in chess’s golden era

Chess is hardly renowned for quickfire action but there was plenty of it on Wednesday in London when Norway’s Magnus Carlsen retained his world title by defeating Fabiano Caruana 3-0 in a series of tie-breaker matches where each player was only given 25 minutes to make all their moves.

The 27-year-old Carlsen is regarded as perhaps the finest chess player of all-time (his peak Grand Master Rating of 2882 is the highest in history) yet he was pushed all the way by Caruana in what was the first world championship series to see nothing but draws, thus forcing the tie-breaker.

Caruana, who’s a year younger, was the first American to compete for the title since the legendary Bobby Fischer in 1972. Miami-born, he’d previously played for his parents’ home country of Italy before switching allegiance two years ago. Chess has never been stronger with 17 of the 18 all-time highest ratings having been achieved in the last ten years. It seems a pity the reigning world champion is only challenged biennially.

* * * * *

Spurs and Arsenal both face into today’s North London derby in much better shape than you’d have imagined at the start of the season. It’s not the first time Spurs have defied the prophets of relative doom under Mauricio Pochettino who really seemed up against it when heavily outspent in the close season by all his rivals for a place in the top four.

But a week when Spurs ended Chelsea’s unbeaten record with a 3-1 win and then kept their Champions League hopes alive with a win over Inter Milan has shown how foolish it is to underestimate the Argentinian and his players.

Unai Emery has also exceeded expectations at Arsenal. When the Gunners lost their first two Premier League games it suggested that a difficult rebuilding process lay ahead of the former Paris Saint-Germain manager. Yet Arsenal bring an 18-match unbeaten run in all competitions into today’s match and look strong contenders for a return to the Champions League next season.

Bet they wish Arsene Wenger had retired a bit sooner.

* * * * *

Portlaoise have endured some agony in the Leinster club football championship. Three years ago they missed a string of chances and lost the final to a last-minute point by a Ballyboden St Enda’s team which later won the All-Ireland. Last year they were three points up with ten minutes to go in the semi-final against Moorefield but lost to a point in the fourth minute of injury-time.

Last Sunday Portlaoise were three points down in a terrific semi against Kilmacud Crokes when awarded a penalty in the first minute of injury-time. Craig Rogers’ shot was saved by Crokes ’keeper David Nestor. Portlaoise’s late suffering hasn’t been confined to the Leinster Championship. Two years ago they were beaten in their county final by a last-minute Stradbally goal.

Consistently one of the country’s most attractive teams, they must suspect somebody up there has it in for them.

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