Saturday 16 December 2017

Rachel Wyse: Schmidt facing reality of swimming with sharks

Irish role as tough an examination of coaching prowess as is imaginable

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt

Rachel Wyse

I don't know if Joe Schmidt is a fan of the Irish soccer team. Even if he is it's unlikely he cares much for their fortunes; after all he has plenty to preoccupy him right now. I wonder did the reaction to the soccer team's recent win over Latvia register with the newly appointed Irish rugby head coach.

As the pundits declared the dawning of a new era, their positivity for the fortunes of the Irish team under Martin O' Neill and his new managerial team was unmissable. The beautiful game on the Emerald Isle has been rescued. O'Neill and company have arrived to save the day.

Some seem to believe such are the powers of a new manager. So what does last Saturday's performance against Australia tell us about the capabilities of Ireland's new rugby boss?

Despite what the commentary after victory against Latvia seemed to suggest, time and meaningful games alone will reveal O'Neill's impact on Irish soccer. The rules are no different for Schmidt. An abysmal performance in his second game in charge hasn't made for an ideal start. Last Saturday was far worse than anyone expected.

Any illusions that may have existed about the enormity of Schmidt's task were shattered in 80 minutes last weekend. One match may give a false impression of a team's progress – but you cannot ignore what is staring you in the face.

Ireland experimented with younger inexperienced players, that usually means bad days must come before we see the good times, but that is a risk that must be endured to establish if players have the quality to survive and prosper at international level.

DESIRE

Prior to the Australian game, Schmidt spoke about his desire of having 40-45 players at his disposal that are capable of meeting the demands of international rugby. Clearly he has a plan as he works to the World Cup in 2015. I wonder was there much revision to that plan over the last few days?

I like Schmidt. His honesty is refreshing. He appears a man at ease with his responsibility and even after the brutal defeat by Australia his attitude never changed. In his post-match interview there was no defensiveness in his attitude, no effort to trivialise the issue.

The problem for Schmidt, this Irish team and for people who love the game is a simple one – this is the right coach in the right place at the wrong time.

Suppose Schmidt had taken control 10 year ago. What a different proposition the role would have been then as he guided the fortunes of Ireland's golden generation. At a time when Ireland had genuine world-class players approaching their prime the coaching project was very different to the one Schmidt recently inherited.

Sadly nothing lasts forever, time doesn't care for what's gone before and sooner rather than later Schmidt will be without some of the best players this country has ever produced. As their powers fade we can see the effect on those around them, when key men struggle, everyone struggles.

The prospect of not having them in the side at all is frightening. This is Schmidt's reality. In accepting the Irish role he has agreed to take as tough an examination of his coaching prowess as is imaginable.

Unlike his time at Leinster the transfer market isn't an option; there will be no Rocky Elsom, no Brad Thorn, no Isa Nacewa to complement and guide local talents. Without the emergence of world-class individuals the possibilities for Ireland will be limited.

We can discuss selections, different tactics and our need for passion but if a coach hasn't the men at his disposable capable of operating at the required level then it is academic.

To compound the enormity of Schmidt's challenge he now finds himself trying to survive in an environment considerably harsher than that of a Heineken Cup or a Pro12 league. Now he swims with southern hemisphere sharks and last Saturday illustrated how treacherous those waters can be.

With the arrival of New Zealand to town the news hasn't got any better. The best team in the world are one victory away from enjoying a season that will see them go unbeaten.

They were within touching distance of this phenomenal achievement last season only for England to spoil their party. I suspect no visitor parties will need to be cancelled this weekend.

The All Blacks will win, the question is by how much, and to what level will Ireland perform?

Brian O'Driscoll said this week: "We were poor against Australia and that level isn't acceptable, if we play anything like that against the All Blacks there is the potential for a cricket score."

Pride will surely ensure the Irish performance is considerably better than last week but we must also remember the opposition is considerably superior too.

To ensure the victory isn't a Sunday stroll for the visitors, the first aspect of Ireland's game that must be improved is kicking. This is non-negotiable. Ireland must play smart and avoid lapsing into the bad habits that blighted the performance against Australia.

Far too often Ireland chose to deliver cheap possession via poor kicking to Israel Folau and a repeat exercise will be a licence for the All Blacks backs to cause havoc. When the All Blacks get their hands on the ball, Ireland must ensure the visitors have earned possession the hard way.

If we then find ourselves suffering because of devastating back play, you can admire such skill but at least the catalyst won't have been cheap Irish errors.

I'm certain it wasn't the case but the performance against Australia suggested the players didn't care if they won or lost. There was a distinct lack of passion. Too many were going through the motions. Too much respect was afforded to the visitors.

Maybe players were still adapting to new management demands and fell between two stools but these are professionals playing at the highest level. Such issues should be rectified on the training pitch.

Whatever the reason, Ireland must be in the faces of New Zealand, they must demonstrate they have the stomach for the challenge. Their attitude must ask questions of the opposition.

Ireland have big names with big reputations; tomorrow such men have an opportunity to demonstrate their abilities and live up to their billing. World-class players can live with the very best, so those in black will provide a fair indicator of our standing.

The build-up has been tagged with cliches of restoring pride and of players coming out fighting when backs are to the wall. I find such mentalities strange.

We seem to be forever taking one step forward followed by two steps back. Why can't an Irish team get to a place where they perform to a decent level every time? Why so many peaks and troughs? Schmidt found the answers to these and many other questions with Leinster. This time around it won't be so easy.

Irish Independent

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