Saturday 16 December 2017

No time on Schmidt's side in bid to make Blues tick

TIME is "the school in which we learn and the fire in which we burn".

Whether it lingers for women has never been properly established but we know that time waits for no man -- and certainly not the professional rugby coach.

Victor Costello reckons the bedding-in process between players and a new coach takes three months. The problem for Leinster coach Joe Schmidt is that, when his three months are up, Leinster's challenge for Heineken Cup and Magners League silverware could, effectively, be over.

In one sense, that would take the pressure off and allow Schmidt, who is on a three-year deal, to entrench systems and build confidence for the future. The problem is that this is World Cup year and Ireland need their top players, a chunk of whom are corralled in Leinster, to be competing in high-intensity knock-out games to prepare for New Zealand 2011.

Managing a player's time is all well and good but when Leinster's Ireland contingent do take the field next April and May, it would be better for national coach Declan Kidney if those assigned appearances were in the Magners League play-offs and/or European semi-finals rather than ending with a dead-rubber match at home to the Warriors.

Schmidt, like all the provincial coaches, was hired to bring as much success as possible in the two club competitions, with the Heineken Cup higher on the priority list. How frustrating then to have those objectives hamstrung by directives from the Ireland management regarding the use of senior players?

However, it is not as though the New Zealander did not know this would be an issue when he agreed to move to Dublin but, with the intrusion increasing in World Cup year, the realities of the situation have been hard to accommodate -- particularly when you factor in Leinster's injury list.

It makes the bedding-in process all the harder and, as the newest man in, Schmidt is at a considerable disadvantage when compared to the other provincial coaches -- not least Irish rugby's other 'new' head man.

Eric Elwood played in Connacht for 17 years, assisted Michael Bradley as coach for four more before taking over as top man this season. Elwood knows the Connacht scene backwards, from die-hard supporters and the blazers on the committee to the local media and who to schmooze among the corporate sector in the never-ending quest for funding.

True, Connacht do not have anywhere near the same financial or playing resources as Leinster, but Elwood knows exactly what he does have.

He knows how long he can get out of Brett Wilkinson before subbing him for Ronan Loughney, he knew who was the best man to step up once he lost captain John Muldoon to injury, he knows how to get the best out of his foreign contingent -- where to play Troy Nathan, when to spring Miah Nikora -- and he has tabs on the best players coming through the Academy.

Similarly, up north, Brian McLaughlin is a local coach steeped in Ulster rugby and one who used the second half of last season to "get his ducks in a row" when the trophy pressure was off -- with the benefit of that work being shown in their unbeaten start to the new campaign.

Compare that to the scenario facing Schmidt. The New Zealander is still frantically trying to get to grips with the idiosyncrasies of his squad. He has established a few facts -- the scrum can be built around Mike Ross at tight-head, he needs to start Jamie Heaslip as often as he is allowed and his captain Leo Cullen cannot return from injury quickly enough.

But there are a host of other questions that Schmidt is trying to answer, while lurching from game to game. Last weekend was Schmidt's first proper look at Devin Toner -- can he make a proper judgment on the basis of the second-row's seasonal debut among a disrupted front five? What is his best back three? Is Dominic Ryan a better option at six or seven? Where should he play Sean O'Brien when Heaslip is in the team? Is Mariano Galarza up to it at this level?

It is a complex ongoing process and so we are back to the issue of time -- that is what Schmidt needs and exactly what he doesn't have as he tries to solidify Leinster's season.

There are already rumblings among supporters, who gorged on the achievements of Michael Cheika and Leinster's recent superiority over Munster and expect more of the same from his successor. However, this is to forget that Cheika's credentials were questioned by sections of the fan-base following the heavy loss to Munster in the 2006 Heineken Cup semi-final.

It has also been suggested that the job is too big for Schmidt, that his qualities are best suited to the back-up role he had at Clermont, that he is a 'Carlos Queiroz' but not an 'Alex Ferguson'. But again, it is too soon to tell. As much as Schmidt is trying to come to terms with his new surroundings, those around him are also attempting to adjust to the new arrival.

However, there are a few things we have established. Schmidt is intelligent, articulate and a good 'people person', he knows his rugby and his Top 14 record proves he can produce attacking teams and we also know he is badly missing defence coach Kurt McQuilkin.

If Schmidt wishes to take encouragement from elsewhere, he need look no further than his opposite number this weekend. After a successful stint as assistant to Declan Kidney, Tony McGahan made the step up to the top job at Munster, leaving him open to the 'Queiroz' question mark when Munster suffered back-to-back Heineken Cup semi-final defeats following Kidney's double success.

However, four matches into his third season, McGahan has really hit his stride, having picked up valuable information along the way.


He identified the scrum as an area of inconsistency and appointed a Munster-hewn expert in Paul McCarthy. He realised the value of old core values and brought Anthony Foley and Niall O'Donovan into the southern hemisphere dominated set-up. And McGahan made canny signings in Sam Tuitupou, Johne Murphy and Wian du Preez -- not as high-profile as last season's expensive hit-and-miss acquisition Jean De Villiers but consistently effective.

The upshot has been an assured start to the season, even in the face of similar player-restriction issues and injuries as Leinster, with results building momentum along the way.

That learning process took time; Schmidt needs a quick fix before the season gets away from him.

A designated defence coach would seem to be a good way to start, while perhaps somebody like recently retired full-back Girvan Dempsey (now working with the Academy) could be brought into the senior set-up on the core values basis.

The next three games are crucial. Munster -- already 12 points ahead in the table -- at home in the Magners League, before Leinster face Racing Metro (home) and Saracens (away) in the Heineken Cup.

Irish rugby needs Schmidt to do well and he needs time to make it happen. It is only fair that he gets it but when it comes to salvaging this season, something needs to start clicking because the clock is ticking.

Irish Independent

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