Tuesday 15 October 2019

Neil Francis: Ruthless streak will be useful in this job

Joe Schmidt has a huge challenge ahead of him to replicate with Ireland what he has accomplished at Leinster.

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

It would be fair to say that Declan Kidney did not enjoy any luck in his last season as national coach. Luck, like a Lada, generally only works when you push it.

His successor, Joe Schmidt, will I suspect have no issue in pushing his luck as far as it can go. Schmidt – a gentleman and a gentle man – is happy to use that persona to cloak the fact that he is as driven and as ruthless a coach as has ever been handed the reins. His two predecessors were ruthless in their own way, Schmidt though does not suffer from O'Sullivan's Napoleonic insecurity and Kidney's fastidious secularity.

Schmidt is a likeable fellow and socially accomplished. As far as the media are concerned, he is a dream ticket – loquacious, articulate, direct and very quotable. Hard to gauge what the Kiwi makes of us.

Back in 2010, at the start of the Magners season, Schmidt, a novice head coach at Leinster, got the sort of start to his term that would have given Freddy Krueger the spins. Leinster lost all of their pre-season friendlies and went down to Glasgow (22-19), Treviso (29-13) and Edinburgh (32-24) – a run that was interrupted by an unconvincing win at home to Cardiff.

Leinster were awful. Yes, most of their senior players were easing their way through a pre-season programme, but Leinster looked like a pub team that had spent too much time in the pub. I didn't hold back in my piece at the time.

"The singular lack of hunger to close space and hit hard might give rise to the notion that the new leader (Schmidt) is prepared to put up with shit performances – quite unlike his predecessor. I haven't seen this team look as loose and lacking in spark since Gary Ella was in charge."

I finished up by saying, "Schmidt has only a very short time to convince his players that he knows what he is doing – otherwise he could be joining Gary Ella and Deccie as one-season wonders in D4."

The following week Leinster got their superstars back and beat Munster 13-9 at the Aviva and they were the first and last harsh words I had for the coach. The pressure came on and the coach dealt with it; we need not have doubted him. Kipling had it, "if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you but make allowances for their doubting too."

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It is a given though that coaching a national side is a radically different programme from that of a provincial operation. The building blocks of what made Schmidt successful at Leinster might not translate.

Let's look at what makes him so good and see if that is transferable. The dual strand of Schmidt's bible are based on (a) skills implementation and (b) tactical awareness and strategic execution.

Leinster's skill levels are the best in Europe. The quality of their passing is sublime and all the ancillary skills and adjuncts are of the requisite standard.

A few years ago, I listened to Cal Ripken Junior, the all-star short stop for the Baltimore Orioles, give an interview to ESPN. His averages – well, they weren't average. His longevity and continuous sequence of playing were freakishly uncommon and his skill levels had a fourth dimension about them. The interviewer asked the question about the amount of time Ripken spent after official training ended honing and perfecting his skill set, even into his 40s. "Practice makes perfect, huh, Cal?" "No man – perfect practice makes perfect."

Schmidt's repetition upon repetition of the skill of passing is an obsession. It is no accident that the line is fluent and dangerous. The benchmark is constancy of purpose. Will he get the chance to get his players in the national side to do the same? Probably not.

The marriage of all of the ingredients of the Leinster game plan, allied to a superior skill set, works very well and it works for a reason.

I have never been in a team room with Joe Schmidt but I am told that he is not ruthless but 'incredibly ruthless' when it comes to how his team plays. There is no coaching by consensus, which seems to be in vogue at the moment.

Schmidt listens but he has the final say on everything. What is different about that? Every boss has the final say. It's just how definitive it is. No room for doubt. If players feel they can augment, it weakens the system of control.

In a team situation, the affable media-friendly guy disappears and a man always on the edge takes his place. Video sessions are where souls are purged. Sure everyone has to explain away a mistake, an omission or a lack of foresight. Schmidt is unforgiving and pulls up every mistake. Every mistake!

In an avenue which he must now explore, Schmidt would never ask a player to do what he cannot do, he just doesn't pick them. Rob Penney perhaps was guilty of that in his approach with Munster this season.

So if a player cannot do what the coach demands of the way the team plays, formerly Schmidt would just drop him or not pick him. Now he has no choice. With Ireland, you can't buy new players and you can't not pick the outstanding player from one province because he can't execute the tasks required of him from the national coach.

Brilliant for his province but not good enough for Ireland – and players that are perceived to be inferior to that player get in ahead because they are a better fit for how the team play. Will that happen? I think it will. I think you will find provincial quotas will be ignored to a greater degree.

Favourites too. Kidney always had time to fit in a Paddy Wallace here and a Mick O'Driscoll there. I think those days are over too.

If Schmidt cannot marry what he does for Leinster into his new position, then there is no point in giving him the job.

Maybe one of the reasons why the done deal took so long to become a done deal (apart from the money) was the degree of autonomy he absolutely required. Freedom of expression and total independence.

His backroom team will tell us something. The choice of director of rugby or performance director will tell us everything. Not too long ago, the IRFU turned the act of foisting an assistant coach or manager onto a coach who didn't want him into an art form. Those ad-hoc committees' ability to undermine and render the coach's autonomy neutral were a constant. If brains were chocolate, you wouldn't have enough to fill a Smartie.

Schmidt has taken on the job, yet he goes into that position without even knowing who he will be reporting to. The performance director will be chosen by Odgers Berndtson . . . yeah, me neither!

Schmidt has a number of important tasks to accomplish before he finds out who he will report to. The most obvious is to try and get Brian O'Driscoll to play for two more seasons and convince him to do it by giving him back the captaincy. That will improve Schmidt's chances of success immeasurably. Ireland currently are in ninth place in the official IRB rankings. Michael Laudrup's Swansea are currently ninth in the Premier League. Is Laudrup, who is an excellent coach, expected to win the Premier League? No!

Is Schmidt, who is an excellent coach, expected to win the Championship?

Yes he is. Tough job!

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