Friday 23 February 2018

Joe Schmidt has no lay-bys on the road to World Cup

15 March 2014; Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship 2014, France v Ireland. Stade De France, Saint Denis, Paris, France. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
15 March 2014; Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship 2014, France v Ireland. Stade De France, Saint Denis, Paris, France. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Over the last two weeks, the ticking of the World Cup countdown clock has been hard to ignore.

Whether it's information on how much you can expect to pay for tickets, or where you can only buy them safely, to various other signposts on the road to England 2015, pretty much everything is pointing in that direction.

The first junction on that route for Joe Schmidt is still six weeks away, with the start of the Guinness series, against South Africa, but already pundits and punters are scribbling squads of 31 for less than 12 months' time.

"To be honest, with the World Cup, it's still that far away," Schmidt said at the launch of Ireland's new Canterbury kit last week. "Even with the personnel we have here today, I'd be surprised if there wasn't someone from outside 42 in the World Cup group. You have 31 in that group. There's every chance that someone could come in from outside the group. What would help us, I think, is some good continuity and some confidence that you can hopefully build through the short-term fixtures like the Guinness series and obviously the Six Nations, which can be pretty tough going."

A year into the job, much of the comment on Schmidt's 10 games - 70 per cent wins and 10 new caps - has focused on the technical advances of the squad. They had plenty of room for movement on that front. By the end of the November Tests another batch will have been exposed to a method where the playbook is not a hard copy, rather a series of instructions that the players must learn and memorise.

It can be hard going, seemingly. And the next in line for the test surely will be Connacht second row Mick Kearney. Along with Tadhg Furlong - who will be hoping his progress is sufficient to make him a real contender for the World Cup - the other new faces in Carton House last week were Kiwi tight head Nathan White and Leinster back rower Dominic Ryan.

"In the shorter term, it doesn't take too long to work out that if Iain Henderson is injured and Dan Touhy is injured and if Donnacha Ryan hasn't played yet, you're not too far from needing a couple of second rows, so we're trying to cover our bases and make sure that we've got a few guys who at least are aware of how we try to operate," he says.

Depth at tight head raises the issue of Irishness as well, for what we can't produce ourselves we have to transplant from outside, either with the green gene already provided by a granny, or else wait three years - an inappropriately short incubation which evidently the IRB are happy with - for the colour to show. Schmidt looks around the provinces at his options and plays the pragmatist's card.

"I guess one of the things I'd say is you can't pick Wiehahn Herbst (Ulster) and you can't pick BJ Botha (Munster). That leaves Mike Ross starting at Leinster and if Nathan White is starting over there (in Connacht) I'm not sure what people expect of us. If that's the situation then surely you've got to pick the best available team?

"If players are eligible and available and fit to play, then they're part of the selection mix. That's my opinion on it. Again, I'll leave it to you guys to define what makes an Irishman but if someone is giving everything that they've got in a green jersey, that's probably what you need because it's going to be incredibly competitive and it's incredibly combative. I guess my job is not to determine who's eligible but to select from those eligible a team that is as capable as possible of being competitive."

It is appropriate that Schmidt should refer to 'giving everything in a green jersey' on two levels: one, if that 'everything' amounts to something valuable at Test level; and two, if indeed that 'everything' is all they have to give.

The recent experience in this area has not been good. In November 2012 a desperate Declan Kidney dropped Michael Bent into the Ireland side before he had laced a boot for Leinster. Patently the Kiwi was a mile off the pace. Since then Bent has featured just once - two weeks later against Argentina - and it was noticeable last season how his contract at Leinster was extended without the usual trumpet blast that accompanies these announcements. In other words, Leinster wanted it under the radar that a man who looked so far out of his depth was being left in the pool at all.

Three months ago, Rodney Ah You became the second overseas/naturalised prop to be capped, when he came off the bench in the First Test in Argentina. We need to be careful here because there is a tendency in this business to give a gratuitous kicking to imports who don't jump off the page, simply because they're from out of town and will probably be heading back there before too long.

Notwithstanding that, there is a reasonable expectation that blow-ins should come on like a hurricane to prove at least that they are mustard keen for the job. Michael Bent looked up for it, but not up to it, though his performance for Leinster against Cardiff on Friday night was encouraging. Rodney Ah You, who came on in the last quarter in Resistencia when Ireland had some defending to do, just looked unbothered about making a positive impression. It's hard to comprehend that at Test level.

The notion of any one of the 20 something players who get a run against South Africa giving that impression is like bringing a rolled up newspaper to a gun fight. You can understand the coach being afraid to even look to Georgia until he sees what's left standing after the Springboks. Does their physicality unnerve him?

"Can I tell you in two months?" he asks. "I'm not sure. The way they bristle into the collision areas, the way they team up when they carry and hit, they love to double team tackle, they love to double team carry. They even do that thing where, it's not as if they are not powerful enough, but they grab and then throw them into the collision. I don't think there is anything in the rules to say that they can't, but gee they generate some force.

"Can we cope? I think that is going to be a good question for our players and it's probably not a bad time to ask it. Hopefully we'll get a couple of sessions in on that Thursday that will be a little bit physical as well, and that Tuesday to Friday window that we have in the week previous, and then the week of it maybe get one more physical session in so that we can freshen up and hopefully combat what will be, across the board, a pretty physical side.

"One of the things, I don't know if they have measured it but I think Bryan Habana can generate as much force as anyone on a power to weight ratio. He is an incredibly powerful man. All sprinters have to be powerful, that power they generate, but he does a great job."

Their back row are not short on that commodity either, or indeed aggression. Rewind to the corresponding fixture two years ago and it was like Francois Louw, Willem Alberts and Duane Vermeulen took it in turns to get involved in some afters, usually with Peter O'Mahony who is always hot to trot.

"Yeah, but they have managed to avoid yellow cards," Schmidt says of South Africa's performance in the Rugby Championship. "In the one they did get we'd all look at it and go: 'How was that a yellow card?' But I actually think Heyneke (Meyer) has them pretty well disciplined. You know how Bakkies (Botha) will always come in and give the forearm, I haven't seen as much of it. They have been pretty disciplined and that would be borne out by the statistics around them. They haven't been on the wrong side of the ledger as much as they have been at times in the past."

Is in unthinkable that Ireland will come unstuck against Georgia - the meat in the sandwich between South Africa and Australia - so a hat trick of wins has to be the target statement ahead of meeting either of those Sanzar nations in RWC. And if that happens, it will be in a semi-final. Naturally enough he isn't boarding that flight just yet.

"You can't predict, to be talking about the World Cup," he says. "Therefore what you can predict a lot more is the certainty of who you are up against in the Guinness series and who you are likely to have available and plan for that. I think to get a scalp would add massive confidence. It won't necessarily make a difference in the final result but you always want to keep confidence, you want to generate some sort of momentum.

"I do think it is really important and that would be a lot closer to the way that we think about it. We wouldn't work back from the World Cup and think about what we have got to do, we think forward to the next hurdle and try to think about how that will contribute to us having a confidence and momentum into the next hurdle. We want to sort of work our way forward to the World Cup, not work our way back and work out what we have got to do. We just want to do things really well."

Starting in November, the coach has a dozen games to set the tone. And the alarm will sound sooner than he would wish.

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