Thursday 24 October 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Schmidt nervous as his final act gets under way'


Ireland's head coach Joe Schmidt looks on during the Captain's Run. Photo: Reuters/ Rebecca Naden
Ireland's head coach Joe Schmidt looks on during the Captain's Run. Photo: Reuters/ Rebecca Naden

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

At the Yokohama fan-zone last night, supporters of Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand and South Africa mingled with the locals as the Rugby World Cup came to Asia.

A kilometre away in Ireland's luxurious team hotel, Joe Schmidt tuned quietly in with a very different focus.

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His final project gets under way tomorrow morning and no stone has been left unturned in the four years since his team crashed out to Argentina.

He has invested so much time and effort into this job, but he knows more than anyone that sport is an unforgiving beast. Past performance guarantees you nothing.

Schmidt will leave the job and step away from coaching when the team exit the tournament. He is investing every last effort into making sure they make it back to Yokohama on the first weekend in November.

He knows that his legacy will come to be defined by what happens in the next two months, even if he will exit the stage as Ireland's most successful coach regardless of what happens.

Starting with Scotland and Japan looks like a favourable draw, but that only works out if they win both matches. If they do, then they can ramp down the intensity and rotate the squad against Russia and Samoa before targeting a place in the semi-final by overturning New Zealand or South Africa in Tokyo.

So, they must beat their fellow Six Nations side at the Yokohama International Stadium tomorrow morning to get things up and running.

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"We've got a big Tier One opponent and the players know each other really well and I think that closeness makes us a little bit nervous and them a little bit nervous no doubt as well," he said after naming Jordan Larmour at full-back and Andrew Conway on the wing.

"Last time was my first time coaching in a World Cup so I was obviously nervous but we started with Canada and Romania.

"It's a bit of a different start going Scotland and then six days later to the host nation, so there's a little bit more anxiety around this game than there was last time and I felt last time that we were in pretty good shape.

"There's a similarity in Robbie (Henshaw) picking up a bit of a hamstring twinge but apart from that, the team is quite different. It's a little bit younger mostly and I think that there's some really positive enthusiasm there.

"So if we don't start well, I don't think we can get distracted or too worried.

"We've just got to get ourselves going forward and thinking forward; not distracted by anything that has gone before if it doesn't go too well from the start, which can happen in a big game because there's that degree of anxiety and there's that odd-shaped ball that we play with."


Although he says he has some anxiety about the opener, the coach says he takes comfort from the mood of his players.

Eight of them are making their World Cup debuts and he has gone with trusted combinations up front, with the fittest available players behind the scrum.

And he believes they have built nicely towards the first match.

"There's a degree of calm in the camp now," he said. "When you get close to these really big games, the players tend to take centre stage and start to lead what's happening and when we see the players doing that it builds confidence for the management and the coaches.

"I would never be a particularly confident person but you do take a bit of confidence from that.

"There will be no shortage of motivation and sometimes you've got to temper that a little bit, to make sure you can still be accurate, that you're not hyper-motivated and that it doesn't spill over into inaccurate actions.

"I get a pretty good feeling from the camp and it gives me a little bit of confidence but, as I say, I would never be the super-confident type so we'll see what happens."

Schmidt never would have envisaged going into this game with this back-three, but now that the cards have been dealt he's bullish about his hand. We'll find out if he's bluffing tomorrow, but Larmour, Conway and Jacob Stockdale are all quality operators with lots of ability. It's an unfamiliar, but exciting combination.

Certainly, Scotland will hunt them in the air and with rain on the way it could get tricky. Still, Ireland will feel that their ground game and superior half-backs can reign supreme.

A lot of responsibility lies on the shoulders of captain Rory Best and lineout caller Iain Henderson who endured a ropey couple of outings out of touch in the warm-ups.

Scotland have the tools to apply pressure in the air and the Ulster duo need to hold their nerve.

If they can get a good supply of clean, quick ball then Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton have the tools to do damage.

Andy Farrell's defence will look to apply huge pressure on Finn Russell as he makes decisions and Ireland will hope to force the mercurial out-half into mistakes.

The Scots have an exciting back-three and Ireland will be careful about kicking to Stuart Hogg, but they will sense opportunity if they can get their ball-carriers going around the corner with Garry Ringrose adding a bit of nuance to proceedings.

Schmidt referenced Scotland's threat on the deck as one of the keys to winning the game. Hamish Watson and Stuart McInally are breakdown threats and Ireland will need to work hard on their ball presentation and ruck arrivals to ensure the supply to Murray is clean.

With Wayne Barnes at the helm, there will be a need to stay squeaky clean and Ireland will count on a low penalty count while punishing any Scottish ill-discipline.

Don't be surprised if they go to the corner and go for the jugular.

Over the past four seasons, they've built up huge experience and can draw on the memory of beating every one of their major rivals. At the same time, they'll be highly wary of a slow start. Schmidt's wins are almost always built on control of the scoreboard.

Life will be easier if they get in front and manage the Scots from there.

"It wouldn't necessarily be habitual for us," the coach said of the sluggish openings that cost the team against England and Wales in the Six Nations.

"There's a really good example in 2017. In the first game of the Six Nations we started very, very slow. We were 21-5 down against Scotland at half-time, so we know we can't afford that sort of incredibly slow start.

"We've got to try and get on the front foot from the start and that's built up through the warm-up and the preparation this week and I think our preparation has been good."

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