Saturday 21 September 2019

Ruaidhri O'Connor: Unfinished business sets Schmidt on World Cup course

Ireland coach signs on for Japan 2019

Joe Schmidt shows his disappointment after Ireland's World Cup defeat to Argentina last year Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Joe Schmidt shows his disappointment after Ireland's World Cup defeat to Argentina last year Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ever since his depleted team failed to fire in last year's quarter-final defeat to Argentina, there has been a sense that Joe Schmidt had unfinished business with Ireland.

All things being equal, the head coach wanted another crack at the World Cup after doing so much to put his team in a strong position only to have it come crashing down around him as injury and suspension ravaged his options.

Yet all things are not equal and the New Zealander had to consider what was best for his family when making his call.

Nine years have passed since the Schmidts took the plunge and moved to Clermont, and this contract extension brings their time away to 12. Schmidt's son's well-documented medical issues remain the priority, and all factored into the big decision.

Throw in the fact that his success with Leinster and Ireland has been closely monitored by the folks back home.

Steve Hansen has signed on with the All Blacks until 2019 and Ian Foster is being groomed as his successor, but if Schmidt wants to get the top job in his native land he'll have to get on the Super Rugby coaching ladder at some stage.


The offer from David Nucifora to remain until 2019 was on the table and Schmidt gave himself until July to make the call, but it took longer than he expected.

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Yesterday's statement confirming the deal included 167 words from the head coach, but barely got to the reasons behind the decision. He hasn't spoken to the media since June and doesn't plan on doing so again until next Thursday after naming his team to face the All Blacks. By then, his decision to remain on will be old enough news.

The last time he did address the issue he became emotional when asked about his big decision. It was never going to be easy.

Drilling down into the statement, however, it is clear that when it came to the rugby side of things he was heartened by the emergence of new talent in 2016 - a year of enforced transition.

With Paul O'Connell joining Brian O'Driscoll in retirement and a host of front-line players suffering post-World Cup injuries and losses of form, the emergence of Josh van der Flier, Ultan Dillane, Stuart Olding, Tadhg Furlong and Finlay Bealham as viable Test options has offered hope for the future.

Add in Garry Ringrose, Dan Leavy, Joey Carbery and Jack O'Donoghue's potential, the performance of the U-20s last season, Paddy Jackson's displays in South Africa as well as the fact that Bundee Aki, Tom McCartney and Wiehahn Herbst qualify to play for Ireland next autumn and the potential squad is shaping up nicely.

Most of all, there is the sense that the coach himself will take what he learnt last autumn and put it to good use. Along with IRFU performance director Nucifora, he has the most influence of any Ireland coach before him and he praised conditions in the four provinces.

During the summer tour of South Africa, there was a real sense that the World Cup continued to loom large on the Ireland coach's mind and he returned to the topic a number of times.

"I know and I fully accept the criticism of the World Cup," he said. "I'm not sure what people expected, losing our five most influential players the week before, and one of them two days before that quarter-final.

"And as I've always said I take nothing away from an outstanding Argentinian performance but I don't want to go there again.

"I don't want the team to be caught in a situation where we've got players who haven't been in that white-hot environment. And it's throwing out the opportunity, dove-tailed with the challenge, (to find out) can they live there? And if they can that's got to be good for us.

"You cannot win the World Cup with 15 players, you can't win it with 30 players.

"You need to be at least two and a half deep, hopefully three deep in every position because you're going to lose some players,.

"I don't think that I could ever imagine losing five worse players than we did lose, you know? It's probably my biggest ever disappointment in rugby that we lost that game.

"It was pretty hard for the players and the management to bounce back from that, because we probably felt that we were really well-equipped going into the back-half of our pool, after struggling through Italy we then tried to push on and this gives us on opportunity to push on without those players and then hopefully force those players to play a bit of catch-up and that might deepen our resources a little bit."

That project is fully under-way and the coming month will be key to seeing how the team cope.

Schmidt described the 18-match unbeaten New Zealand as a "dominant" force yesterday, and Ireland's first meeting with the world champions since the near-miss in 2013 will help inform him of how much work remains to be done.

There is no sense that his voice might have become stale despite the fact that some squad members have been listening to him since he arrived at Leinster in 2010, while the inclusion of Andy Farrell on the coaching ticket has given Schmidt a good sounding-board and a fresh voice the players respect.

As Nucifora said in yesterday's statement, Schmidt is "one of the leading coaches in world rugby" and the three-Test tour of South Africa only re-inforced his reputation.

His team didn't get over the line for a series win, but their ability to change tack between each game and cause the Springboks so many problems showed the innovative nature of the main man.

There is room for improvement, but Ireland's prospects in Japan are undoubtedly enhanced by his steering of the ship.

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