Monday 16 December 2019

Joe Schmidt: Pumas defeat biggest disappointment of my career

Coach hoping South Africa series will force new leaders to emerge

Joe Schmidt in pensive mood during the Ireland team announcement in Cape Town yesterday. Picture Credit: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt in pensive mood during the Ireland team announcement in Cape Town yesterday. Picture Credit: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Ruaidhri O’Connor

Yesterday, as he sat by the pool at Ireland's team base in Cape Town, Joe Schmidt conceded that last year's World Cup exit at the hands of Argentina was the biggest disappointment of his rugby career.

Eight months on, the New Zealander admitted that he, the players and the management struggled to deal with the 43-20 loss that brought a halt to a campaign that had promised so much.

That defeat was brought about by an excellent Pumas performance and a below-par display from an Ireland team shorn of five key leaders.


Tomorrow at Newlands, Schmidt's side take on one of the world's top three sides without any of the five men who were missing in Cardiff. Indeed, the casualty list is even worse now.

More than half of the team that beat France in that incredible final pool game are unavailable to the coach for the three-Test tour of South Africa, with two of the replacements also unable to travel.

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So, when he named his team for the first Test yesterday, there was no getting away from the fact that there is a feeling of renewal about.

And what the head coach is looking for more than anything is the sight of young players putting their hands up to become leaders.

"Over the next three weeks we're hoping that starts to happen," he said. "I said before we left that when there are alpha males in your group the others tend to just be part of the group. Inevitably, when things become a needs-must situations, somebody else needs to step up. Paddy (Jackson) has stepped up well in training; Ian Madigan has stepped up as well.

"It's something that's really hard to predict, transitioning from training into the Test arena and the cauldron that it is. We'll learn a bit through the next three Tests. I do think that it will give us a better measure."

Conor Murray in training ahead of Ireland's Test against South Africa. Picture Credit: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Conor Murray in training ahead of Ireland's Test against South Africa. Picture Credit: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Schmidt will learn a lot about the men previously considered back-up players in the weeks to come.

"You cannot win the World Cup with 15 players, you can't win it with 30 players," he said. "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 (before the Argentina game). 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.

"This (tour) gives us on opportunity to push on without those players and then hopefully force those (missing) players to play a bit of catch-up, and that might deepen our resources a little bit."

There is a sense of change about both sides as they transition from one four-year cycle to another and for all that Ireland are missing men, they have still been able to field a more experienced team than the Boks, with a combined 559 caps compared to the hosts' 474.

Yet, new Springbok coach Allister Coetzee is able to call on six forwards and three backs who started the World Cup semi-final defeat to New Zealand.

"They will be big, physical, well-conditioned, they will be cohesive because they know each other inside out," Schmidt said. "Allister Coetzee has been at the top of coaching for long enough, I have massive respect for him. He's going to make subtle changes, he won't reinvent the wheel."

The injuries have forced Schmidt into trying new things. Understandably, he has always selected Johnny Sexton when the Leinster out-half has been available but his shoulder surgery allows Jackson an opportunity to show what he can do in the Test arena.

The coach has also been reluctant to break up his preferred centre pairing of Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne, but the loss of Rob Kearney and Simon Zebo means the Ulsterman is redeployed and Luke Marshall gets a chance.

Both of the full-backs from the Six Nations will watch anxiously because if Payne carries his Ulster form into this game, then they might have some trouble getting back into the team.

Schmidt is acutely aware that his selections are not always popular, but he remains his own man and is determined to show his way is the right way.

"I've no doubt some people will say I've picked the wrong team, some people will say that we've picked a team that's going to lose, as they did last time (in 2014)," he said. "I guess it's up to us to try to prove them wrong if we can."

Irish Independent

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