Sunday 18 August 2019

Analysis - Six Nations challenge should not limit Ireland’s global vision as Schmidt seeks 2019 swansong

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: PA
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: PA
David Kelly

David Kelly

If Halloween is an occasion to be surrounded by the most ghoulish creatures imaginable, then Joe Schmidt got his wish just as the sun crept below the horizon.

For last month he was surrounded by a phalanx of journalists, forsaking normally shabby couture for preposterous penguin suits.

In the course of a fairly engaging discussion on the topic du jour - Simon Zebo's move to France and consequent exclusion from the Irish international squad - the Irish coach was asked to assess the issue of player departures in the context of the forthcoming World Cup

"I know everyone puts a huge premium on the World Cup but our players love to play in the Six Nations," he responded.

"I think one of the gross imbalances for us is the way the World Cup is perceived. It is the epitome, the peak, but it's probably not as far ahead in all those players' thinking than the Six Nations."

His answer reveals much about Irish rugby's worldview.

For Ireland, and the IRFU, the bread and butter of their existence remains the oldest championship - not the newest.

And it was a point Schmidt was keen to emphasise once more as his side completed their clean sweep of November internationals, concluding piquantly with a victory against the side who not only ended their ambitions at two of the last three World Cups but who, by doing the same in 1999, arguably altered the course of Irish rugby history.

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"I think the Six Nations is a phenomenal tournament, and I would pay the utmost respect to that competition," he remarked.

"The World Cup is really Johnny-come-lately in regard to that. The Six Nations is our tournament."

That much is true; Ireland have won three titles since the 2009 Grand Slam marked their longest drought - 24 years - without a championship win.

They may have changed their tune in Europe but have not been able to shift the mood music on a global scale.

Two years after that 1985 win began their yawning championship gap, Ireland embarked upon their first World Cup and were dumped out at the quarter-final stage. None of the seven stagings that followed would see an improvement.

Ireland's successes in the last decade were celebrated by IRFU bean counters and the public alike but, when the methods deployed were pressurised at the exalted level of a World Cup, neither the style nor substance were fit for purpose.

Compelled to myopically target the Six Nations above all other considerations, the Irish ultimately reaped what they sowed when it came to the World Cup.

Can it be different this time?

Schmidt's boss - David Nucifora - is on record as saying that if Ireland keep on doing what they have always done in between World Cups, they will keep getting beaten at the quarter-final stage.

He discovered precisely this when his 2015 tournament review almost mirrored that from 2011.

There are signs that the dots are being joined. More than ever, once the bleating about individual cases like Zebo and Ruan Pienaar and Bundee Aki have been silenced, the attempts to develop provincial depth with Irish-qualified players is being tightened.

There remain stressful areas - the debate about Joe Carbery's development is a case in point - but there appears to be much more of a national buy-in than ever before, even if Nucifora's popularity amongst provincial supporters dips with every passing month.

Having enough players to overcome the corrosive blows sustained between the damaging pool match against France in 2015 and the subsequent defeat to Argentina is one thing; having the game to do so quite another.

In this, there have been encouraging glimpses; Ireland scored more than three tries in all three games and, slowly, there is a willingness to embrace a little craft atop the graft.

Perhaps it is Irish nature to remain stubbornly understated about their rugby aims but privately, one hopes, their sights will not be limited to just a stodgy, safety-first Six Nations title tilt.

The expressions of pain from some players about 2015 last week shows that World Cup failure cuts deeper than perhaps Schmidt realises.

Ireland are now ranked third in the world. There should be no limits to ambition. And they have the perfect coach to guide them there.

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