Saturday 7 December 2019

Schmidt's depleted side will do well to weather the storm

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt is seeking a repeat of the cauldron-like atmosphere at the Aviva that drove his side's zealous performance in that heartbreaking defeat to New Zealand last year. Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt is seeking a repeat of the cauldron-like atmosphere at the Aviva that drove his side's zealous performance in that heartbreaking defeat to New Zealand last year. Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Weather forecasters in Dublin must be enjoying this autumn with its unseasonably-high temperatures and balmy evenings.

Instead, it is the rugby coaches and commentators of the nation who are the bearers of bad news with each week bringing another injury crisis to give fans Seasonal Affective Disorder and Joe Schmidt a migraine.

If the coach felt the momentum of last year's Six Nations win went astray somewhere in Argentina, he must fear it could dissipate further this month.

Last season, game three against the All Blacks was the target for Ireland and it would appear the Wallabies look the more vulnerable of the visiting southern hemisphere teams. However, South Africa and Georgia will soften Ireland up nicely for Michael Cheika's team and the coach will be keen to win in a city he once called home.

With the World Cup less than a year away, there is a school of thought out there, articulated by Leinster coach Matt O'Connor on Friday, that Ireland must claim at least one of the big three's scalps in order to be competitive.

It was a straight answer to a straight question, but his predecessor won't thank him.

Tanked

Whether it's true is a moot point. Ireland beat both the Wallabies and South Africa in 2006 and tanked a year later. In 2010, they lost to the Boks and New Zealand while beating Samoa and Argentina, and performed much better the following year.

If they beat France in the final pool game next October, it's conceivable the Six Nations champions could reach the final without meeting anyone from below the equator. Schmidt has been talking up the enthusiasm in his squad while attempting to manage expectations.

On Saturday, he will have a tighthead prop short on game time if Mike Ross even makes it, while his outside centre will be a novice. Missing his main ball-carriers in Sean O'Brien and Cian Healy, he must trust his players have applied themselves diligently enough to be able to out-think the bigger team.

The Springboks are not a different beast theses days, they're just more refined thanks to the discovery of Handre Pollard, their precocious out-half.

Schmidt has been singing the 20-year-old's praises, while he has also labelled No8 Duane Vermeulen as the world's best player this season. This is the same world in which Kieran Read exists. High praise.

Ireland's last game was on June 14 and since then the Springboks have taken to the field eight times, winning seven. Their only defeat was against the world champions and they got revenge a few weeks later. All this and the fact the next few games will be the first steps of the post-O'Driscoll era might suggest a drop in interest, but instead the visits of the southern hemisphere sides have long sold out.

Schmidt is seeking a repeat of the cauldron-like atmosphere that drove the zealous performance in that heartbreaking defeat to New Zealand last year, while his side owe Australia one after their no-show the previous week.

The coach has ready-made excuses but he won't want to use them and while he admits the task is "really tough", he wasn't calling it mission impossible.

Much depends on Ross' fitness. He may be 34, but with Marty Moore out, the Corkman remains as valuable as Johnny Sexton to the cause.

Scrum stability would allow the fly-half to show why the IRFU were willing to throw an unheard of four-year deal his way last summer. With O'Driscoll gone, Sexton is the main event.

Whether the cast around him have the physical power to cope with the Boks remains to be seen, with injuries and form leaving a number of the squad coming in under a cloud.

However, Conor Murray is growing in stature every time he takes the field, while Jamie Heaslip is at the height of his powers.

It's a results business, but given the context the performances will be key. Ireland must show they can compete while down numbers and new faces must show the ability to thrive at this level.

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