Tuesday 17 September 2019

Brendan Fanning: 'The weight of the World Cup is on Schmidt's shoulders now'

If Ireland reach the last four in Japan, there will be more garlands laid at Joe Schmidt’s feet. Photo: Sportsfile
If Ireland reach the last four in Japan, there will be more garlands laid at Joe Schmidt’s feet. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The conclusion to the Ireland tour of US and Japan two summers ago in Tokyo had a clinical feeling about it. The sort of vibe you might get if you were a saver and had just dropped a decent few quid into the account.

Or maybe a project you were working on, and some important paperwork had just been filed. The World Cup was just over two years away but this three-Test jaunt had packed another bit of that luggage on board.

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At the same time, circa 5,500 miles south in New Zealand, the Lions - with 11 Irish players on board - were making more than a decent fist of their tour.

Allowing for wear and tear on that crew, Joe Schmidt seemed satisfied with himself. If there was to be a bolter in his World Cup squad then truly he would have to be lighting up the sky.

In addition to the playing staff Schmidt had given access-all-areas passes on the tour to former Ireland players making their way in the coaching world. Spread over the three weeks Girvan Dempsey (then Leinster), Ronan O'Gara (Racing 92) and Felix Jones (Munster) would take turns in tracksuits. "I think they are three outstanding young men who have fantastic potential to be coaching in this country," Schmidt said at the time.

They weren't being groomed for this World Cup, but to have two of them - Dempsey and Jones - embedded in Leinster and Munster respectively meant more streamlined proliferation of the Schmidt doctrine into the camps of Ireland's primary suppliers. All boxed off. All systems go.

None of them currently are in the Irish system. In a cruel twist, Jones is now snuggling up beside Rassie Erasmus in South Africa. You wouldn't have to be paranoid to feel under fire from that.

Back in 2017 we thought the only potential blot on the landscape was Paddy Jackson. Interestingly, the Ireland management were so sure that his legal issues would not get in the way of his career that they put him up for interview one day in the team hotel in Tokyo.

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Naturally enough the menu was restricted solely to rugby questions, but there was not a shred of stress that his career might be heading off track. Along with Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery, Ireland looked well sorted at 10.

Further in the background was Munster's South African Jean Kleyn, who had just completed his first season in red. He didn't have the hands or sheer size of compatriot Gerbrandt Grobler - nor indeed his rap sheet - but Schmidt liked what he saw, and getting him onto the island in time for the World Cup three years later wasn't a coincidence. So, between players already eligible and those on course to be eligible, the pool was deep enough to spread confidence across the rugby constituency.

That pool emptied a bit with the drilling from England in February. It didn't fill up much over the rest of the Six Nations. Then it emptied some more when England waded into us in Twickenham last month. By the time Schmidt announced his World Cup squad last week there was a great big hole where the water used to be. And the coach was getting it in the neck.

When it comes to Joe Schmidt the high water mark for us was this pain-in-the-arse punter interrupting an interview in what we used to call the Berkeley Court Hotel. By then the coach had worked his magic with Leinster and was pulling rabbits out of hats with Ireland. This old geezer came over to interrupt and thank Joe for all he had done for the country, the leadership of which was in the balance at the time. Would he be up for a stint in Leinster House, the punter asked. Jaysus.

So it was quite a fall to last week when Matt Williams was tearing Schmidt a new one over the omission of Devin Toner from the World Cup squad. Ever since Williams came across all teary-eyed at the sight of the Wicklow Hills, on a flight path into Dublin Airport, it has been advisable to keep a salt cellar in one hand and a copy of The Quiet Man in the other when reading his columns. Faith and begorrah.

Luke Fitzgerald was quick also to lace up his boots, and was especially interesting on the dynamic about picking imports over homegrowns. Brian O'Driscoll too maintained the decision "kind of beggared belief", but when you read past that headline he was circumspect about its rights and wrongs.

Whatever, a picture was presented of the national coach as a man who was losing the plot. We would fundamentally disagree with that on the basis of who he did and didn't pick for Japan. But there are a few things about Joe Schmidt that suggest a man living on the edge.

The first patently odd set-piece was the tap dance a year ago around his contract status with the IRFU. The story went from him being out of contract at the end of the World Cup to 'when will he decide whether or not to stay on after that point'?

Union chief executive Philip Browne and performance director David Nucifora both tip-toed around the issue, as if it were a snake. As for Schmidt, he bounced the decision back until after the November series so that everyone could focus on the next stages of the journey - primarily beating New Zealand at home.

What? There was no decision to be made! How could there be? For Schmidt to imply a year out from his contract end that he was open to the idea of staying was to suggest the World Cup was no more than a speed bump when in fact it's a hole in the road. If Ireland drive into it then not even his most ardent supporter will be lamenting his moving on. And even if it works out - a place in the last four in Japan - there will be more garlands laid at his feet, more eulogies, but Andy Farrell will have pulled his chair up to the head coach's desk.

So the last lap got under way with the announcement that the winningest coach this country has ever seen will be gone before Christmas. It hasn't been a tour of the county agricultural shows and parish fetes since then however. Rather he has lasered in on the World Cup, knowing his portrait will be painted only after that is done and dusted. Acknowledging this has only raised his cortisol levels.

In the bowels of the Principality Stadium last weekend after the Wales game a colleague mentioned that Schmidt was "pissed off" that the team had been sussed in advance and published by one of the press pack.

As a rule of thumb, journalists should never whinge about being told bare-faced lies by coaches about the fitness of players. Often it makes absolute sense for those coaches to bury the truth. Equally coaches should spare themselves the stress of getting worked up about teams that leak. Schmidt is genetically incapable of making peace with this.

He appeared frazzled also about the announcement of the World Cup squad. We couldn't grasp the rationale of the original plan to whack it over to World Rugby last Sunday, as per protocol, and then sit on it for a week, until after yesterday's final warm-up.

It had no chance of surviving a full 24 hours once the players had been told, never mind a full week.

Sure enough Schmidt pushed the button early, a couple of hours after it had appeared on independent.ie. He had an interview prepared with RTÉ in which he said how painful it had been to dump Toner, but it didn't serve to limit the damage, or to change the image of a man under intense pressure.

Yesterday's result in the Aviva will have calmed him more than a bit. At half-time his team were trailing, and struggling to break down a Wales side who had left six certain starters on the bench. But by the end they ramped up the physical stuff to put Wales back in their box. And so both Schmidt and Rory Best, coach and captain, signed off their Lansdowne Road incarnations on a positive note.

It's ironic that its prize should see them ranked number one in the world. In Eddie O'Sullivan's day that would have equated to having all your ducks in a row. Currently there are a few upright and floating along nicely, and a few others with heads down and rear ends in the air. This is not quite what Joe Schmidt had wanted going back to Japan.

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