Friday 22 March 2019

David Kelly: 'Ruthless, loyal and willing to bend the rules'

Joe Schmidt will oversee Ireland's final competitive match at the Aviva Stadium with an unwavering conviction in his ability to transform a stuttering title defence into a triumphant valedictory Six Nations campaign. Last month, Jack Carty became the 100th player to be capped by the Kiwi, each man a reflection of the selector's relentless, remorseless drive to make his side the best in world rugby

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David Kelly

David Kelly

'The Ireland team to play Samoa in the Aviva Stadium this Saturday is, number one, Jack McGrath..." With these 17 words, on November 7, 2013, Joe Schmidt officially launched the most successful coaching career in Irish international rugby history.

Although appointed months before, the Kiwi had decided to give himself a watching brief for the previous summer's tour of North America, where he allowed his deputies to select and coach a side who were still recovering from Declan Kidney's bruising final season in charge.

It was a summer dominated by the Lions tour to Australia so many key performers were missing but it was still a strong enough squad, many of whom would continue to forge a strong relationship with the incoming coach.

Five of them, though, would never feature for Schmidt despite seeing time in the wins against Canada and the US - Jamie Hagan, Mike Sherry, James Downey, Paul Marshall and 2009 Grand Slam winner Tom Court.

Others would be stalwarts under the Kiwi, like Mike Ross, Devin Toner, Peter O'Mahony and Robbie Henshaw.

When he picked his first squad, there were a couple of eyebrow-raisers; many hoped James Coughlan would win a deserved first cap; ultimately, he never did and left to play in France, where he would be deemed ineligible because of the IRFU's infamous "unwritten rule" concerning exiled players.

Recognition

That didn't stop Schmidt including Niall Morris, the former Leinster winger, then with Leicester; but he too would never see any action under the new coach.

Already, Schmidt was demonstrating his personality; a refusal to hand out caps because it was felt by others that they 'deserved' them; and also a loyal adherence - albeit later a famously flexible one - to the IRFU policy discriminating against those playing abroad.

Ireland's sudden fall from grace in 2013 meant that Samoa, remarkably, arrived in Dublin for Schmidt's opening Test ranked one place ahead of a home side who were marooned at eighth in the world.

Unable to select the injured Jonathan Sexton, Schmidt's side eventually ran out comfortable winners, 40-9, after an indifferent first half.

Two years out from the World Cup, the side was backboned by familiar names who would, however, once more fall short at the highest level.

Six years on, after three Six Nations titles, a historic series win in Australia, two wins against a previously indomitable All Blacks challenge, culminating in an unforgettable 2018 which saw Ireland ranked No 2 in the world, Schmidt is eyeing a more successful valedictory World Cup campaign.

Two weeks ago in Rome, Jack Carty became the 100th player to be capped by Schmidt.

Not all have been successful but they do represent the extraordinary depth of the sport here, as well as the incessant quest of the coach to ensure that, unlike his relatively short preparation for the 2015 World Cup, he can bring a much more battle-hardened battalion to Japan.

Six starters from the Samoa game remain core to his plans, while three who emerged from the bench remain involved: Cian Healy, Sean O'Brien and Sean Cronin. However, the latter two might discover, after recent travails, that while certain key elements remain constant for the coach, there is always the sense that nothing is engraved in stone.

Schmidt's single-mindedness demands of himself, as much as others, ruthlessness and loyalty to be constant bedfellows even if such traits often seem conflicting to those on the outside, or even on the inside.

That seemingly ceaseless journey of questioning and self-examination - framed within a rigid structure of order, discipline and concentration - has served many so well but has also proved beyond others.

Steepling principles and sky-high ambition drive Schmidt but they are his alone; others must deign to share his approach.

Players crave his affection but the danger is to assume the feeling is mutual; his primary requirement is attention.

History has decreed that the marriage has been a wholly successful one in most people's eyes. Though perhaps not yet in Schmidt's.

He is still searching for the best of himself and others. Still looking for answers.

Schmidt's selections not only inform us about Irish rugby but also tell us as much about the man himself.

For, within the eyes and the minds and the hearts of the 100 players he has selected, there is something of Joe Schmidt in them all.

A tale of two players offers us a merest window to the soul.

His master's voice

Johnny Sexton may not captain the side but he is the centurion who commands all legionaries. He dictates the mood, adapts it, conjures escape routes, navigates difficulties, cajoles and comforts in equal measure.

Nobody comes closes to conjuring up the personality of the coach than the out-half, who freights his general's carefully and painfully constructed plans of the training ground and whiteboard to the battlefield.

So recently, his self-flagellation, not to mention anger directed at those around him, mirrors the intensity of the man who has inspired him for nearly a decade.

"When I'm analysing my own game and I spot myself doing something wrong, I can hear him pointing it out to me," Sexton has said.

Schmidt is the "voice" in Sexton's head; an intertwined communion of almost humdrum application to attention and the dreamy pursuit of the impossible; both elements conjoined in last year's Grand Slam success.

There, Sexton offered a unique glimpse into not just his mind, but Schmidt's too.

"How do I put this nicely... sometimes you're driven demented by him!"

That some of his team-mates would admit the same of Sexton indicates the mirrors of personality.

Incompatible enigma

Schmidt's distaste for the profligate, the inattentive, is legendary; endless testimonies of brutal put-downs litter his reign, beginning with the famous one directed at Brian O'Driscoll in his first month at Leinster. Nobody escapes.

Simon Zebo personifies a seemingly inaccessible difference but Schmidt was able, for a while, to reconcile his perceived austerity with the Corkman's almost untamed brio.

Schmidt, it is fair to say, was a distant sceptic at first; the rugby ascetic and artist were a twain that could, it appeared, never meet.

Zebo was omitted from an entire Six Nations and then, after playing almost entirely in another, was dropped for the final-day consummation of a title in Edinburgh. He played nine successive games at one stage but then exited stage left.

He was not trusted in a World Cup, too, excised precisely at a moment when a squad dwindling in personnel and narrowing in coaching focus bowed out to a Puma side whose wide areas were packed with players who shared his array of attacking flair.

Zebo had to change; but Schmidt bowed to the remedial work also.

Neither of the famous wins against the All Blacks could have been possible had Schmidt stuck to his rigid playing style; it was no coincidence that Zebo had become central to it.

His zest to be liberated on the field was, at times, contrary to his coach's philosophy but the pair did find time to co-exist until, when Zebo sought freedom abroad, Schmidt invoked Irish rugby's Magna Carta, the unwritten constitutional clause barring those overseas.

It was a rule once bent to accommodate Sexton, but he was indispensable to Schmidt; Zebo was not.

All 100 players have learned to accept that this is a coach whose will determines all; his track record has justified every single pick.

Joe Schmidt's top 20 players through the years

1. JONATHAN SEXTON Others may have played more and others may have captained the side, but nobody else can come close to matching the levels of responsibility handed to the out-half by his coach.

2. CONOR MURRAY Schmidt's recent strident defence of a player clearly lacking in confidence demonstrated his supreme loyalty, even though other players have suffered the axe with similar dips in form.

3. DEVIN TONER Not always a constant but on the rare occasions when he has been dropped, his value in absentia has soared. His footballing skills have been transformed since Schmidt started coaching him. 4. TADHG FURLONG Just when it seemed Schmidt's stocks were dry, Wexford's finest has been moulded into the world's best tighthead, one with several strings to his bow.

5. RORY BEST The veteran Ulster hooker has become a loyal captain, and his leadership has been integral to Ireland's recent success. 6. ROB KEARNEY Another of his one-time Leinster stalwarts, Ireland's most decorated player retains the trust of a coach who, as the Chicago All Blacks win showed, can cajole the best from him.

7. SEAN O'BRIEN The Tullow man has always been a banker for Schmidt but events in Rome suggest the credit is running out. 8. PETER O'MAHONY His occasional deployment as captain - on eight occasions - reflects the esteem in which the Munster man is held by the coach.

9. PAUL O'CONNELL One of the (in)famous five players downed during the 2015 World Cup, the Munster legend was a pivotal figure in Schmidt's early days in charge.

10. KEITH EARLS His diligent application embodies the type of winger that Schmidt wants in his side, one who is capable of affecting the game in different ways.

11. JAMIE HEASLIP Another Leinster leader whose career was ended by injury, but not before confirming himself under Schmidt as Ireland's greatest No 8.

12. ROBBIE HENSHAW The coach calls Henshaw his "solutions man" and he has solved most of them, although critics argue that his freedom to play ball has been restricted by limited use in a packed midfield.

13. MIKE ROSS He was the trusted ever-present fulcrum of the scrum until his first demotion in 2016, and paved the way for Furlong.

14. JARED PAYNE Arguably the second 'coach' in Schmidt's backline, the naturalised Kiwi was the defensive organiser who seamlessly succeeded Brian O'Driscoll until his injury-enforced retirement.

15. JAMES RYAN Schmidt's constant awareness of upcoming talent alighted on the talented schoolboy and he had no hesitation in handing him an Irish debut before the lock had even started for Leinster.

16. JACOB STOCKDALE His aerial prowess and strength mark Ulster's prolific finisher as a Schmidt favourite, even if the coach is repeatedly reminded of his defensive flaws.

17. CJ STANDER The South African-born Munster man has been a steady rock in the back-row.

18. ANDREW TRIMBLE He demonstrated that resurgence is possible, making at least three notable comebacks after long absences caused primarily by form, not injury.

19. CIAN HEALY Another who showed that players can fall out of favour but be rewarded if form deserves.

20. BRIAN O'DRISCOLL Remained on for one final fling in 2015, and the coach realised the importance of that decision as the legend bowed out with a Six Nations title.

Irish Independent

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