Ireland's new breed impress pass master
In brilliant sunshine in New Jersey's Red Bull arena yesterday Ireland ran through their standard pre-match routine.
Perhaps for the first time since the squad came together in Kildare two weeks ago, it felt like the tour was about to start. And with that you got an image of Ronan O'Gara: he looks the same as he did when he stopped playing, sounds the same, and in scenes like this his hunger hasn't diminished. He would write the cheque if that's what it took to have another go.
"You forget what Irish camp is - national camp," he says. "It's completely different to club rugby. It's been a really unbelievable two weeks. I just think how lucky the young guys are when they come in. That was me 20 years ago. You don't forget what it means but if you are out of a system for four years, all the great memories come flooding back.
"That's why this week and last week has been really good. There are a lot of inexperienced players that are dying to learn. In a club game you would have, especially in the French club game, it's very different. Some of them, their appetite to learn would be questionable.
"Just here it's, well it helps when you have a coach like Joe to get a good message across. But you could not speak highly enough of the younger generation. You hear a lot of negativity about how the young kids have changed and they are into this and that. But I don't see that from a rugby point of view. I see them very humble, very respectful, very decent young guys."
O'Gara is one of the current generation of coaches who talk about being new generation, about hoovering up as much information from as many sources as possible. O'Gara would be good at that.
His stint here ends tomorrow - Girvan Dempsey does the first week in Japan, and then Felix Jones rounds it off leading to the second Test there - and, perhaps appropriately given that we are at Leaving Cert time of year - he has been in cramming mode. Stay sharp, scribble down the salient stuff; review and retain. And with Joe Schmidt it's all salient.
"He has such energy, enthusiasm, bounce - it's incredible. He's backing it up for the last two weeks in terms of how he drives it every single moment of every day. You think this guy is going to wane. It's not possible for a man to have this energy."
It's been instructive too for O'Gara to see up close the degree to which players have freedom within the overall plan to call their own shots. Given the access he has been given - essentially it's an investment by the IRFU as well - he's not about to rubbish the operation on the record, but there is nothing false about the praise. Moreover, O'Gara appreciates the coaching team Schmidt has built.
"They have a really good group among them. For me, I think that's equally important as a (playing) team Joe has. I completely realise he's, without a shadow of a doubt, the main man, and there's no other coach like him. But I think they have fierce loyalty and drive within their group, which is something I would be big on going forward to get a good team.
"There will be a time when you have to declare yourself as a head coach, or a No 2, but that's a title. What you want to do is get yourself into an environment where you believe there are good values, good behaviour, and with that you can do what you want to do. It's a few legs of the stool you need to get organised: in terms of strength and conditioning, medical, the GPS side of the game is getting important."
Then there are the players. If O'Gara is impressed by the willingness of the kids to learn then he is encouraged by the speed at which Joey Carbery does just that.
"First of all you have to remember how young he is and how far he has already come," he says. "I think he's the kind of player that the more difficult the scenario or picture in front of him the better solution he finds.
"But he'll find in Test rugby he just has to play the other guys around him. But the guy is... he could be, it's probably a big statement, but he could progress along the lines of Beauden Barrett or someone. I think he has that (something) different. I suppose it's a little bit about growing up in New Zealand and being really comfortable on the ball. He gets excited on the ball. While a lot of people panic, he's the complete opposite: he kicks into turbo mode.
"I think he has all the attributes. He's 21, isn't he? His kicking game is strong. We were trying to introduce a spiral with him this week - working on that. The first few struggled and after a certain amount of reps they just flew out there…then the next few: wow!"
Ireland will be using a bit of that today for while Carbery's first instinct is to beat his man, the Schmidt plan against a side also light on experience will be to stick a few balls in the air.
As a consummate footballer himself, O'Gara would appreciate that. And as a huge competitor he will appreciate that the best teams prepare for underdogs the same way they prepare for sides ranked above them
"That's one of his key messages. That's what I admire. If it was the All Blacks tomorrow I don't think anything would change. That's what he drills into his players. That's why players get such confidence being under him and I think it's very easy for players to prepare because there are very little variables with him.
"I think in your head you can make the adjustment that it is hard at times to have a bad game if you focus on the key focus points he gives you."
The Lions could do with that, but then he appreciates the problems they have. "They could go one of two ways: they could buckle completely or else they could come up with a stand but it doesn't look like the combinations are particularly gelling. There's a lot of hesitancy in terms of their attack game.
"Even from Johnny Sexton's point of view the other day, he didn't know when he was getting the ball and I'd say it's hard - it's very different from what he's used to because everything would be a lot clearer, so I think they definitely have work to do on the attack side of the game."
He doesn't think it will happen for them. He does think it will happen for Ireland.
Ireland - T O'Halloran; K Earls, G Ringrose, L Marshall, J Stockdale; J Carbery, K Marmion; C Healy, N Scannell, J Ryan, Q Roux, D Toner, R Ruddock (capt), J Conan, J van der Flier. Reps: D Heffernan, D Kilcoyne A Porter, J Ryan, D Leavy; L McGrath, R Scannell, S Zebo. usa - B Cima; M Te'o, R Matyas, M Brache, M Iosefo; AJ MacGinty, N Augspurger (capt); B Tarr, P Malcolm, C Baumann; N Brakeley, N Civetta; J Quill, T Lamborn, D Tameilau. Reps: J Hilterbrand, J Taufete'e, P Ryan, M Jensen, A Durutalo, S Davies, W Magie, B Campbell.
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