Sunday 22 July 2018

Ruaidhri O'Connor: 2015 defeat makes this one personal for Schmidt

First meeting with Pumas since World Cup quarter-final brings back some bad memories

Joe Schmidt and Ireland would relish beating Argentina after their World Cup defeat to the Pumas. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt and Ireland would relish beating Argentina after their World Cup defeat to the Pumas. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

On the Thursday before Ireland's World Cup quarter-final against Argentina in 2015, you couldn't move in Cardiff without meeting a member of the Irish squad or management.

It was week five of living in each other's pockets and having been based at the isolated Celtic Manor ahead of the French win, they'd transferred into a city centre hotel for the build-up to a last-eight clash.

The players were relaxed enough as they enjoyed coffees, met family and passed a rare moment of free time in non-branded clothing before returning to work that night.

Late in the afternoon, I crossed paths with Joe Schmidt on the street behind the Millennium Stadium as he escaped the hotel for a rare breather.

"Enjoy the rest of the day off," I said as he passed. "What day off?!" he replied as he hurried back to the video analysis room.

This was the biggest game of his Ireland career and no stone was being left unturned. The players could rest, but the head coach had no time to lose.

Ireland fully expected to be moving to London for the final two weeks of the tournament, but 72 hours later they were heading for home.

The Ireland coach cut an ashen-faced figure beneath the stands as he tried to explain what had gone wrong for his team to a handful of Irish journalists after his side had bumped up against the familiar glass ceiling of the last eight.

Although he rarely looks back, October 18, 2015 has featured frequently in Schmidt's public utterances since.

Two years of work were undone in 80 confusing minutes as the then Six Nations champions were run ragged by a joyous Pumas side.

Roughest

It had been the roughest week of Schmidt's coaching career, with injuries, retirements, suspensions and the late withdrawal of Johnny Sexton all playing their part in a tumultuous build-up that was reflected in the worst performance of his Ireland team that came in their biggest game.

It hurt him badly.

If you want an example of the turnover the Irish squad has gone through in the past two years since Ireland's ignominious exit from the 2015 World Cup, consider that just nine of the 23 from the defeat to Argentina are likely to be involved this weekend.

Schmidt, however, is still present in the coaching box and you'd have to wonder at the emotions he is experiencing as he runs through the footage of that harrowing afternoon beneath the roof.

Outwardly, this is just another game for the Ireland coach who is preparing his team in the same way as he always does.

Inwardly, he wouldn't be human if he wasn't affected by the memory.

Although the players took a break between leaving the Aviva Stadium on Saturday and re-gathering in Kildare on Sunday evening, Schmidt would have been busy picking apart the Fiji game before dusting off the game-tape from Cardiff.

Sitting alone in a darkened room, he will have endured the sight of those blue and white behemoths winning collisions before sweeping the ball wide to their pacy backs who tore Ireland asunder. Then came the rally, before the ultimate fall and the indignity of the late tries that added the cherry for the Pumas.

He probably doesn't need to watch it back. That game is imprinted on a mind more than capable of recalling individual moments from games in the past while also containing an encyclopaedic knowledge of the game.

Had his team beaten Argentina and reached a semi-final against Australia, it is doubtful that Schmidt would still be in Ireland at all.

A sense of unfinished business compelled him to stay and give the big show another crack and so he steers the ship towards Japan. Likewise, it probably stopped him from offering his services to the Lions last summer.

That tournament is edging closer and Saturday's game brings another window to a close. There are four to go until the World Cup warm-ups begin in July 2019.

In 2017, beating the Pumas in their current state doesn't look like much of an achievement.

Last week's win over Italy was Daniel Hourcade's team's eighth in 26 matches since the World Cup and the list of scalps is less than impressive.

France and South Africa have been beaten at home, while they've taken out Italy home and away while also accounting for Georgia, Chile, Uruguay and Japan. Their Super Rugby side have struggled to make an impact since being added to the competition and they've changed their rules to broaden the coach's selection options for 2019.

And they arrive in Dublin as perhaps the most-travelled team in world sport, a team full of players who must barely know where they are half the time given the amount of time they spend moving from continent to continent to play games of rugby.

Their results have seen them slip below Fiji to the edge of the top 10 in the world, but it was clear from Schmidt's team selection which game he considered the bigger one.

He rested 13 players to face the Islanders in an attempt to broaden his squad and take a look at some fresh talent. He also wanted his front-liners fresh for the revenge mission.

So, the big guns will roll back into the Aviva Stadium on Saturday having, by and large, had a week to recuperate from their record win over South Africa.

Funnily enough, the second-string's defeat of Fiji brought back some memories of the 2015 loss to the Pumas. Lost collisions, exposed on the edge and a dearth of leadership was all there to see as the team creaked and almost gave up a historic defeat.

Depth was the issue that Schmidt kept coming back to after that quarter-final loss as his squad struggled to cope with the five big names ruled out of the game.

He has been building a squad ever since, while his reaction to Ireland being beaten in the wide channels after being bullied up front was to hire the line-speed specialist Andy Farrell.

Aggressive

When Ireland play well, their line-speed and ruck work are at the heart of it. Displaying that against an aggressive Argentina side and meeting their ball-carriers before they get going will be key.

Unsurprisingly, both camps are playing down the revenge factor.

Argentina want to finish their long season on a high, Ireland want to sign off from November in style and go into the Six Nations with momentum.

The clash has little relevance for the 2019 competition either; the two sides are on opposite sides of the draw and with France and England in their pool, the Pumas' chances of reaching the last eight are in peril.

Schmidt and his Ireland team don't often look in the rear-view mirror, but there is too much history in this fixture to ignore.

And while the coach says he won't be feeling any different for this one than any other game, it is difficult to believe him.

No one is suggesting that a win on Saturday would put 2015 to bed entirely, only reaching the semi-final in 2019 would achieve that. But one suspects it would feel good for a coach who has been living that loss ever since.

This one, more than any, is personal.

Irish Independent

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