Tuesday 20 February 2018

Schmidt faces tough task to transfer club spirit into Irish set-up

Denis Leamy

The announcement of Joe Schmidt's first Irish squad this week didn't include many surprises, but, given that there were 42 named, and that's not including the injured players, there was a fair bit of scope to accommodate nearly everybody.

It is, of course, just a training squad and there may be changes between now and the November internationals. Where it will get interesting is when he has to name 23 for a match or, more importantly, the 15 who will start.

It's not as if there will be any easy games in November – Australia and the All Blacks, with a bruiser against Samoa in between. Nothing soft in any of those. Welcome to Test rugby!

How Schmidt plays it will be interesting. I don't know him that well, I've met him a couple of times after matches and he struck me as a very pleasant fellow and he'd chat away and we would have a nice conversation.

But it strikes me that he doesn't do sentimentality – he is a man of steel behind the charisma. He won't have guys there based on the number of caps or whatever they won. He will have guys there that he feels are going to add to the jersey. I just get that impression from him.

It's very interesting dynamic in that experimentation is all well and good. But I don't know where the likes of Paul O'Connell is going to fit into his picture, where Brian O'Driscoll is going to fit in, or someone like Gordon D'Arcy, and obviously Rog is gone.


Those boys are not going to play another World Cup, I would think, though maybe Paul would argue against me. Does he cast these players away or does he use them as a buffer while he is building up the younger players?

In many ways the Irish coaching job is a bit of a poisoned chalice. Of the 120 or so years of the Irish rugby team we have only managed to win the Grand Slam twice which is a very scary stat. We have struggled.

You could argue, considering the wealth of talent in the provinces, that we underachieve on a yearly basis.

Between ourselves and Leinster we have won five of the last eight Heineken Cups, and most of the key players on those sides were Irish. And yet you couldn't say that success level was carried into the international arena.

Welsh teams have never won the Heineken Cup – actually they never really feature in the business end – and yet look at all their national side has won over the past few seasons?

There was a famous observation made one time in the Irish camp, that Munster players cared more about playing for Munster than Ireland. It was said that they played better when they wore a red jersey than they did when they had a green one on.

I was actually in the mini group when Rob Kearney raised the point. I thought it was a very interesting point. He was a young player at the time and he wasn't having a go at the Munster players. He was just asking the question and it met with a couple of funny looks. It possibly didn't sit too well with us at the time, but I think it was a very valid question to ask.

You could argue that now against all the provinces maybe. But at that stage Munster had won the Heineken Cup and that's why the question was asked.

Obviously, as a fellow who played for his country and being surrounded by Munster men who played for the country we were certainly hugely proud of playing for Ireland and that was never in question.

Sometimes the perception is that possibly Irish players play better for their provincial sides. It's something like playing for a county, something to do with parochialism maybe.

Schmidt has had great success with Leinster, but he now has to transfer that to the Irish scene and that will not be easy. There is a different dynamic.

He obviously will want to make an early impression, but he has to look at the big picture as well.


I think Schmidt, for the first couple of months and maybe a year, is going to have to learn an awful lot about the players. I think the temptation will be there for Joe to play it safe, pick a good bunch of Leinster players. He knows what they can do and he knows what they can give him on a regular basis.

If there is a 50-50 call between a Munster player and a Leinster player or even an Ulster player, Joe will probably be fully within his rights to pick the Leinster player, based on what he knows about that player.

The key decision for him is whether to treat the November games as an opportunity to make an immediate mark or to look at the long-term scenario.

Irish Independent

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