Monday 21 October 2019

Schmidt eager to keep the good times rolling

Australia tour presents one last chance for Irish success while building squad depth

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The scars of the 2015 World Cup quarter-final week run deep for Joe Schmidt and you sense that only victory at the same stage in Tokyo next year will end the lingering regret of that epic week in Cardiff when the house came crashing down around him.

The Ireland coach has been speaking openly about the 2019 instalment for a couple of years now, as he balances winning with building squad depth to try to be ready if disaster ever strikes again.

He is unlikely to lose five key players in the space of a week before the last-eight game again, but at least his squad looks better prepared now than it did then.

Paddy Jackson's dismissal meant he lost a piece of the jigsaw, but Joey Carbery's decision to move to Munster has eased that blow and the out-half is one of those players who will see the next three weeks as crucial to their own development.

It has been a momentous season in Irish rugby, indeed James Ryan, Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw, Devin Toner, Garry Ringrose and Tadhg Furlong have yet to lose a game in 2017-18. With three games remaining, none of them will be keen to taste defeat for the first time.

As ever, the June tour pits a team at the end of their season against one starting out. The visitors are battle-hardened and cohesive but as they approach their holidays, the bumps and bruises can take their toll. The hosts are fresh, but they have yet to gel as a team.

The bookies are calling it a scratch series and Schmidt hasn't tied himself to the goal of a series win, but Ireland travel south as Grand Slam champions and there is expectation on their shoulders.

In 2003, England famously went to the Southern Hemisphere and beat New Zealand and Australia - victories that became a key par of the lore of their World Cup win later that year.

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Schmidt sees the parallel, but 2015 remains front and centre.

"It's all important but it's all relative," he said. "Going into that France game at the last World Cup, I thought we were in really good shape, you can be destabilised so quickly.

"Just watching the Barbarians [v England] game. It was fantastic but when you look at it, it was an England side without 15 of the guys they've selected for their tour.

"You lose enough players at the top level - key players - you can always be destabilised.

"The key thing for Clive [Woodward] was they won in 2003 but they kept that side together and that side went through to the World Cup later in the year and went on to do a great job.

"Whatever happens in Australia, we can get growth out of it. And if it is that someone gets shown that they need to learn more, that they need to understand more, that's a good investment for us.

"We only get 12 shots at this a year and I suppose the last 12 have gone particularly well, results wise, and you'd love that to continue but there's a greater goal in mind. It wouldn't be often I'd say that but at the same time what's right in front of our nose is going to be incredibly tough.

"Once we land there, that greater goal goes out the window. It will be all about what we can achieve in SunCorp [Stadium]."

The first batch of players were due to touch down in Brisbane overnight, with the second arriving later today and they will repair up the Gold Coast for the first part of the week to get over their travel and then turn their attention to the Test series.

The coach is expecting a tough three weeks.

"We want to make sure this tour is another building block for what comes in the future," Schmidt said.

"We're going to have a big target on our forehead for the Six Nations next year and then obviously beyond that the really big tournament is the World Cup.

"We don't have too many options to trial things between now and then. This will be an opportunity to do some of that.

"It's going to be incredibly tough and that's when you find out about players in those situations, how do they cope, what growth can we get out this tour to make sure that then we're on a slightly stronger footing when it comes to playing Italy in Chicago [in November].

"I'd never put a number on anything because I'm probably number-averse a little bit but I tell you one number which is pretty impressive, 23-18, the last time they played in the SunCorp Stadium against the All Blacks. That's a feather in their cap.

"Watching that game back a couple of times, their ability to turn defence into attack, their ability to attack through multiple phases at real tempo with athletes that are very difficult to contain, you need to be numbered up incredibly well.

"So, with all those challenges, I think there's a real excitement within the group at trying to make sure we can foot it with some of what they deliver."

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