Wednesday 16 October 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Little warmth in Joe Schmidt's comments on Warren Gatland as roof battle gives Ireland more motivation'

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt, left, with Wales head coach Warren Gatland. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt, left, with Wales head coach Warren Gatland. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Pointing the way: Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt talking to strength & conditioning coach Jason Cowman during training at Carton House yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

The Principality Stadium roof is one of those topics that sits behind glass to be broken in case of a slow news day. Yesterday, there was plenty going on, but it was propelled to the centre stage as a battle-ground in the phoney war between Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt.

The Kiwi coaches are facing their final farewell to the Six Nations and they are refusing to budge.

Although Schmidt said the duo enjoy a friendly relationship when asked about his compatriot and one-time team-mate yesterday, there was little warmth in his words.

"I've gotten to know him over the years and we'd have a pretty friendly relationship," he said. "You know, he's probably more outspoken than I am. That doesn't worry me really. He would probably engage in a bit more pre-match banter than I would and again that's his domain. He's been at this level twice as long as I have, in fact longer than that... He's earned that opportunity.

"Internally, we drive our own agenda and we drive our own motivation. It doesn't really impact too much on us."

Still, he was at his most animated when discussing the roof.

Wales, it seems, have circumvented the regular protocol by going direct to the tournament organisers with their desire to close the stadium from the elements. Normally, they would discuss it with their visitors and both teams must agree.

Ireland agreed to close the roof in 2017, but when they took to the field they found it had been watered. In the aftermath of the defeat, Schmidt made a point of complaining about the conditions.

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So, he doesn't seem too inclined to play ball with Gatland's desire.

"Which closed is it going to be? Closed and wet or closed and dry? If it's closed and wet you might as well have the window open and let the rain come in," he argued, fairly enough.

Gatland, for his part, suggested that opposition teams who denied their request to open the roof were running scared.

"There is no doubt when the roof is closed it does create more of an atmosphere in terms of the noise," the veteran supremo said.

"Some teams are able to handle that and others can't with the extra noise and pressure and what the crowd can deliver from a home point of view."

Ireland must make their intentions known today, but the tournament organisers can step in if the forecast is particularly bad. Right now, it's looking biblical.

In the heel of the hunt, the issue will hardly matter.

The Nos 2 and 3 teams in the world will go head-to-head in a packed out stadium in what former Ireland international Luke Fitzgerald expects will be "a war".

The stakes might be higher for Wales, who have a Grand Slam on the line, whereas Ireland retain only an outside shot of retaining the championship, but their coach doesn't see it that way.

Schmidt is expecting the kind of "combative, competitive battle that you always get with Wales" and he's brought Seán O'Brien and Tadhg Beirne into his pack for the injured Josh van der Flier and Iain Henderson, while Rob Kearney will bring calm assurance to the back-field.

Quinn Roux is brought on to the bench for his lineout expertise, while Andrew Porter is rotated in for John Ryan and Kieran Marmion gets an opportunity ahead of John Cooney.

If he brings on all of his replacements, Schmidt will finish the tournament having used 36 players, a total he admits exceeds his expectations. While he is out to win, he'll learn along the way.

James Ryan will call the lineout for the first time at international level, while his second-row partner Beirne gets his Six Nations debut in high-pressure circumstances.

After being dropped for the win over France, O'Brien gets a shot at redemption; Rob Kearney can respond to the challenge laid down by Rob Kearney last week.


Ireland will want to springboard towards the World Cup with a win over a rival of real substance.

These two face each other again twice before Japan and are on course for a semi-final if things work out, but right now their coaches are preparing to sign off on the Six Nations with a resounding victory.

Gatland wants to end his long love affair with a third Slam; Schmidt with a first victory over Wales away from home in the tournament that would guarantee a top-two finish.

He was far from emotional about saying goodbye to a "special" tournament yesterday; the job in hand is hogging his focus. He may be departing at the end of this season, but he is far from checked out.

Whether the roof is open or closed, whether they were taking each other on in front of one man and his dog, Gatland and Schmidt would want to win. Their players will get the message loud and clear.

Irish Independent

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