Sunday 18 February 2018

Joe Schmidt and Eddie Jones brew up a storm

When you add in Pat Lam's heroics with Connacht there was lots for coaches to celebrate

Jamie Heaslip celebrates Ireland's first win over the All Blacks in Soldier Field
Jamie Heaslip celebrates Ireland's first win over the All Blacks in Soldier Field
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

It would be hard to say when the cult of the manager took hold. Football has led the way and rugby was slow to follow - naturally enough, given the games operate in different financial worlds. But in rugby the story of 2016 has been t he story of the coaches. And the theme has been one of transformation.

Eddie Jones - being in England - has had the highest profile. And the circumstances of his arrival meant that any crumb of comfort delivered under the new regime would be presented as a feast; and any slip-up a catastrophic tumble. From early February to late November it's been one tasty morsel after another for England.

Coming hard on the heels of the World Cup fiasco, keeping up with the Joneses hasn't been easy. You had to be there when England bombed in that tournament to feel the depth of their pain. The adage that things are rarely as bad as they seem counted for nothing. Equally the idea of them perhaps being not as stratospheric as they appear currently isn't one they want to take on board. In which case the (English) RFU are being questioned for not having a fixture with New Zealand on the schedule until at least November 2018.

Like most coaches, Eddie Jones has had a mixed career. The immediate shift into fifth gear, however, has relegated the duds - Saracens and Queensland Reds - so far into the background as to be invisible.

From a slow enough start in Murrayfield last February through a stunning and unique whitewash of Australia in June, wrapping up with another clean sheet in November, England are in uncharted territory. There hasn't been a wholesale cleanout of players, with 13 common to the squads who played Australia in the World Cup in 2015 and rounded off the November series against the same opposition last month. Allowing for injuries, Jones is dealing off a fairly similar deck. So his back must be red raw from having it slapped by well-wishers.

The first sign of upset came in Franklin's Gardens last weekend. The look of pain that washed over Jones's face when his captain Dylan Hartley whacked Sean O'Brien was a TV director's delight. The hooker's good form and behaviour had been presented as evidence of the Jones effect. The mask didn't so much slip as get yanked off.

So what next? When Jones picked Hartley to replace Chris Robshaw we reckoned it was an unnecessary risk. Clearly he wanted a team with a hard edge, but Hartley's history suggested it would be more an explosion than a slip when he went over that same edge. It's hard to imagine there wasn't contact between Ian Ritchie, the RFU chief executive and Jones before the former came out with his pre-emptive strike last week to keep Hartley in the game. So expect the coach to follow up next month when he announces his Six Nations squad. Interesting times ahead.

* * * * *

It tells you something of Joe Schmidt's success since he came to Ireland in the summer of 2010 that mid-table in the Six Nations last season was the low point of his time here. Four trophies in three seasons with Leinster; two in three seasons with Ireland: for a man who drew silverware like a magnet to suddenly finish mid-table was a slump. And you could feel it in the reaction of the supporters.

The memory is still clear of having an interview with him interrupted in a Dublin hotel by a well-wisher who wanted him to lead the country, as well as the country's rugby team. Had Schmidt asked him there and then for a campaign cheque it surely would have been forthcoming. That meeting was in between the back-to-back Championship wins. We're not suggesting the well of support evaporated overnight, but certainly there were ripples of unrest running across the top of it.

And it was justified. Schmidt's credo is that the breakdown is the nuts and bolts of rugby, so if you can get that mechanism right then the engine turns over successfully. Steering it is another matter. And in last season's Championship, Ireland were struggling to find space. Masters of the breakdown, but battling for space once they won it, it felt like Ireland had more collisions to deal with than other teams.

So when they set off for South Africa in June there wasn't a fanfare at the airport. Yet they turned the Springboks over in Cape Town and managed to finish the series, their 17th Test in 10 months, making their hosts sweat.

That was nothing compared to how the All Blacks felt in Chicago. That group will forever have to carry the can as the first of their tribe to lose to Ireland. Their anger at such a turn of events could be measured in Dublin two weeks later, but while Ireland lost there was a unique trend emerging in the history of the fixture: losing by two points (in 2013); winning by 11 in Soldier Field; losing by 12 in Aviva. Three tight contests in a row.

To beat the Australians at the end of the year added another jewel in Schmidt's crown. Ireland looked dead and buried when the Wallabies overhauled them in the third quarter. But - as with the insurance try in Chicago - they stuck to the system they had been given by their coach. And it paid out. This ability to manufacture tries when they are desperately needed is a new departure for Ireland. And it's the best trick their coach has pulled off in a magic act that has run and run since he set foot on these shores.

* * * * *

Come 3pm on St Stephen's Day the Lam family will be on the couch in their Galway home, tuned in to BT Sport's coverage of Bristol against Worcester in Ashton Gate. If the bread-winner in that house hopes to be in the Premiership next season instead of the Championship, one rung below, then this is a game Bristol have to win against a side also wracked with worry over relegation.

Lam's legacy in Connacht is secure, and he has done a fine job behind the scenes in setting up a system that works. His achievement in getting his side over the line in a 24-game Guinness Pro12 competition was phenomenal. Better still, they did it playing rugby that was great to watch.

So news of his imminent departure was treated in the West like a death in the family. Rather it's just professional sport at work. And after his stint in Auckland ended in tears, Pat Lam understands professional sport and how it can flatten you.

So he didn't need to justify his decision to take the big salary in Bristol. But he chose to anyway. At the press conference confirming his departure Lam was far more giving than coaches typically would be in that situation, so you pause before slagging off the content. But invoking Anthony Foley in his decision to take the money seemed unnecessary. We all want to look after our families. Most of us just take out life assurance.

The closer he gets to the exit the harder the job will become in Connacht, but he looks like he can cope - and en route his team are turning more heads. Their last-gasp win over Wasps last weekend was a thriller, and they will go to Toulouse in the New Year confident of finishing the job of qualification. Even though they are not the force of times past, the Toulouse operation still dwarfs Connacht. As does that of Wasps. If the current Guinness Pro12 champions can secure safe passage from that pool it will be another epic achievement.

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