Monday 23 September 2019

Joe Schmidt: Better alignment of provinces and national team a key factor in Ireland's success

Huge progress: Joe Schmidt. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Huge progress: Joe Schmidt. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

If Joe Schmidt does choose to leave his position as the Ireland head coach in less than a year's time, he will do so with the place in vastly better nick than he found it.

In June, 2013, the newly-appointed supremo travelled to Houston, Texas to watch his new team from the stands.

Les Kiss was in charge and he admits now that as he made his way to the 15-12 win, he couldn't have envisaged the longevity and success he'd enjoy.

There have been many factors behind Ireland's improvement under Schmidt, but the closer alignment of the structure beneath him is one of the most important.

At times there has been some kicking and screaming, but the greater good has been served by getting the provinces into line.

David Nucifora was brought in to break the eggs, but the omelette has proved to be worth it across a 2018 that has delivered unprecedented success.

"Some of the performances, some of the trophies, I mean, it blows you away really in some ways that this group have probably continued to grow," Schmidt said.

"You know we used 17 players to start in that first Six Nations and it was all about making sure that we were as competitive in that first Six Nations as possible.

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"It wasn't about growing as a squad and it was a bit like that in the second one. Then with what happened in the World Cup you had to rethink and rebuild and we finished third and then second and got back to the peak of our Six Nations performances with that Grand Slam.

"You know (against New Zealand) in 2013 the same volume was in the stadium, the same excitement was in the stadium but it was a slightly different performance because of how consistently the bench could come and even the number of players that we probably lost before that game started.

"You know it is one of those things that I probably wouldn't have foreseen, but I think this group has worked incredibly hard to get to where they are and I don't mean just the playing group, I mean the staff, I mean from nutritional to medical to analysis to the coaching staff to the strength and conditioning staff and the provincial coaching staff."

Schmidt referenced the dialogue with the provinces as being key to the success on the international stage.

"I think the alignment has never been so strong," he said.

"I think it has a dual benefit, they are managing players, bringing them though, Leo (Cullen) has named a whole bunch of academy kids in his squad for this weekend. I am as excited as Leo is to see some of those guys play.

"I do think it's in a really good place at the moment. It is fickle because things can change very quickly, but it has allowed us to put ourselves in a strong position in some ways.

"Then you've still got to retain the work ethic and the enthusiasm, but it's hard for kids not to get excited when you have a crowd like you had last Saturday. It's a great position to be in for us. It means something to the players, that they feel they have that degree of support.

"I do think the New Zealand system is really well-aligned. The only three systems I've coached in are the New Zealand, French and Irish ones and I do think we are similar to the New Zealand system.

"There's no way that we want everyone to play the same way. Every province has a little bit of their own character and they have different ingredients.

"They create their own mix and we think that that's healthy. Variety is something that's essential to keeping people fresh and also freshening our ideas."

After soaking up the success over his home country, Schmidt attention quickly turned to tomorrow's meeting with the USA.

He has made 14 changes to his side for the sold-out clash and has a warning for fans expecting a rout.

"America aren't going to make anything easy for us," he said.

"I wouldn't be surprised if this game is a relatively tight one. Last year, we played Fiji and won by three points.

"They are the games that we intentionally put players out there, wanting to put them under pressure, wanting to see how they respond under pressure. They had to scramble their way through that game.

"Hopefully, we're not scrambling. Hopefully, we can put together a performance that allows us to get the result at the end of the day."

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