Saturday 21 September 2019

Schmidt isn't targeting a semi-final place, but he is at least dreaming about it

Scottish opener holds the key to Irish success in Japan, writes Rúaidhrí O’Connor

Joe Schmidt: Fond farewell. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt: Fond farewell. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O’Connor

On Wednesday, after four years of meticulous planning, Joe Schmidt will step on to a plane to Japan to begin the end-game of his time in charge of Ireland. His focus is singular. Beat Scotland and everything will flow from there.

Saturday marked the end of a difficult week that saw him make the final cuts to his squad and, although there is concern over Keith Earls' knee as the departure date looms, the squad look to be in pretty good shape.

Since the disappointment of the defeat to Argentina in 2015, Schmidt has been looking towards the weekend of October 20 and a potential quarter-final against South Africa or New Zealand.

To get there, his team must perform twice in six days against Scotland and Japan and then manage their way through the remaining Pool A meetings with Russia and Samoa.

Then, the true nature of the challenge will be revealed as they attempt to take at least one step further than any Irish team and smash the last-eight glass ceiling that has loomed over Irish rugby.

Tenure

Although he has kept a rigid game-by-game focus throughout his tenure, Tokyo has never been far from his mind and on Saturday he drifted on to the topic of his own accord when asked a question about Rob Kearney's performance.

"Rob is a long-term professional - he knows when to get on the up-swing and I can't remember too many games where Rob Kearney hasn't played big for us," the coach said. "The game we lost here in the Six Nations (against England), Rob wasn't playing and we were experimenting, and we experimented a bit during the Six Nations and we wouldn't normally do that.

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"But I said at the time, we'd won three of the five Six Nations, we didn't need another one of those. We need a semi-final in this big competition coming up. If you try to chase everything, I don't know if you've done too much farming but if you try to chase the whole herd all you end up [doing] is chasing.

"If you corral things and decide where your priorities are, I think you give yourself a better chance.

"But you need that luck, you need a few things to go your way."

Asked how he feels as the reality of the tournament looms, the coach says he is "nervous".

"I finish in two months' time and it is so important to me, personally, and I can't let that be part of the equation," he said.

"It is still very much all about getting the very best out of those 31 men who will be looking to get the very best out of themselves.

"We are realistic about what these (warm-up) matches are as opposed to two weeks' time and what those Tests matches become.

"But we are also pragmatic enough to know there is a number of things in that first quarter that we didn't do very well and that all goes into the melting pot as you are trying to make sure that the next recipe is slightly better."

Although he brought the prospect of a semi-final up himself, Schmidt demurred when pressed about his thoughts on whether he felt this team was ready to take that step.

Scotland, unsurprisingly, will dominate his thoughts as the team look to hit the ground running when they take on their chief pool rivals on Sunday week before facing hosts Japan five days later.

"It's funny, while I might say that, I will be looking at Scotland. You've got to have a look at Japan as a coach but certainly the players, they will have no interest in Japan or anything else," he said. "If we can beat Scotland... there's so much riding on that game and they know the same thing, and they're such a good side.

"I don't want to go through their team, but if you want to test me on the 31... and it's not just their team. It's their team behind the team.

"I know Gregor Townsend well and I've got massive respect for him. I think he's a smart coach and on the back of that they're going to be a huge challenge.

"So, yes we would love to make that semi-final and I don't set goals. So it's not even a goal, it's a dream I have that I'd love to see come to fruition but it will all be about what happens in two weeks."

Saturday brought an end to a stellar chapter of Schmidt's career as he signed off at the Aviva Stadium with yet another win.

Asked for a highlight of the day, he typically focused on others.

"I think for me, because I see how hard he works and because he is a rock for us, I think the standing ovation for Rory Best was absolutely merited," he concluded.

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