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Schmidt must be the favourite to lead Lions into battle


Schmidt: Impressive start

Schmidt: Impressive start


Schmidt: Impressive start

The odds are that there will be a Kiwi in charge of the Lions tour to New Zealand in 2017, although whether it is Warren Gatland again or the new kid on the home nations' coaching block, Joe Schmidt, remains to be seen. The wheel will spin many more times yet.

It is not just a team's fortunes that fluctuate across the course of a series, so too do perceptions of the coach pulling the strings.

As Ireland have prospered, so has Schmidt's reputation soared. Gatland, meanwhile, has had to fend off criticism as his Wales team have once again come up short against southern hemisphere opposition following losses to Australia (for the 10th time in succession) and New Zealand, for time immemorial.

Gatland bristled on Saturday night when quizzed on the BBC about being under pressure in the wake of that sobering return, the legitimacy of the question brusquely dismissed.

In Dublin, there was pain of a different sort as Schmidt was whisked off to hospital to have his appendix removed at the end of a day spent doubled up, the agony offset by seeing his team complete an autumn clean sweep with a nail-biting victory over Australia.

Schmidt's suffering for the cause might be an extreme example of the sacrifices that have to be made as a coach. But let us dismiss the notion that a coach does not make a difference. He does. It is no longer just about the players.

Even the All Blacks need a strong hand at the tiller, Steve Hansen, winning World Rugby Coach of the Year for the third year in succession at the weekend.

Would New Zealand prosper without him? No. Hansen keeps probing, keeps innovating, but, crucially, does not overcomplicate or over-meddle, heinous sins in the coaching lexicon.

He lets his team play, lets the talent come out. New Zealand express themselves, have fun in so doing, and that sense of empathy shows in their rugby and, in particular, in their ability to win games at the death.

What is indisputable is that a team have to believe in the man heading up the operation, have to trust and respect what he has to offer, have to feel that he is their 16th man, the intellect, the shaper of events, the mind-games manipulator, the front-of-house PR spinner, the protector in times of stress and scrutiny, the behind-the-scenes rollicker, the reactive eyes and ears up in the stand, the substitutions guru, the man with a plan.

Schmidt is undoubtedly a sharp-end coach. But he has had no God-given right to succeed. He has earned that acclaim, as Gatland has with Wales.

In the emotional aftermath of a spirit-sapping loss to the All Blacks, Gatland's pique was understandable even if the facts remain the same. Wales have fared badly against the southern superpowers.

Yet there are three Grand Slams to Gatland's name and a Lions series win over Australia. You do not accumulate that quality of sporting booty by chance.

Schmidt has the benefit of freshness, although the novelty factor does not last long or cut much ice with players. They do not allow bedding-in time for a new coach, all too aware that the ready reckoner of scoreboard is invariably held against them in particular.

Schmidt, who succeeded to the Ireland role last season, has made an instant impact.

His minute attention to the detail of reading the opposition as well as preparing his own nuanced approach, has been hailed by Leinster and Ireland players since he arrived in the country from a stint understudying Scotland coach Vern Cotter at Clermont.

Schmidt is a master at locating that fine line between invention and interference. His teams do not look over-coached or over-structured, a charge that was levelled at England last week by their one-time forwards coach under Clive Woodward, John Mitchell, who labelled their style PlayStation rugby.

As he recuperates, Schmidt can relax and look ahead to a promising Six Nations campaign, while Stuart Lancaster and Gatland have one shot at autumnal redemption to come. The coach's lot is proving as pressurised as that of any player. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent