Friday 24 November 2017

Schmidt well prepared for the business of moving on

Ireland's coach finds himself without key lieutenants, but says team are better than they think

Joe Schmidt: ‘When you’re coming out of your 22, you’ve just got to be really accurate there because if you do make a mistake, you give an opportunity to a really good team’ Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt: ‘When you’re coming out of your 22, you’ve just got to be really accurate there because if you do make a mistake, you give an opportunity to a really good team’ Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

There is a moment from the Argentine episode that illustrates perfectly the difficulty Joe Schmidt has with moving on from Cardiff.

His World Cup was predicated on getting to the semis, and not only did it fall short, but the collapse was caused by a hammer blow from a side of mostly unknowns who have a history of giving Ireland grief at these gigs.

He recalls chatting to one of his senior players afterwards, with the man in question pretty sore about the look of the scoreboard as well as its effect.

"It's really disappointing that the score got blown out," the player said to him of the 43-20 final tally. "But you know what? I'd still rather that we had a go at that, than just try to keep the score down."

The coach understood the sentiment but saw it differently. And still does. "That's the way it is when you're maybe having to chase the game a little bit, but I don't think they had to chase quite as hard as they thought, y'know? We're still only one score away so, yeah . . ."

The last bit comes with a rueful laugh at the end. Asked if in the immediate aftermath he wanted to a) dig a hole and get into it, or b) fast forward to this Six Nations to crack on with a new chapter, he is unequivocal.

"I wanted to dig a hole. I think everyone has a fair bit of human side to them. I try to be logical, professional and I try not to be too emotional during a game because you've got to be as analytical as you can be, but I'm emotionally attached to my job. I think any coach is, and when you're emotionally attached to your job you don't want to let people down."

Interestingly, it was the first time since Schmidt arrived on these shores as a coach, in 2010, that his methods have been widely questioned. The consensus was that his low-risk style had been trumped by the adventure of the Pumas. And certainly when you juxtaposed the two it was Daniel Hourcade's side who were better to look at.

We're not sure how big a premium Schmidt puts on aesthetics however. When you go back over it, the weakest point of Ireland's game that day was what they did without the ball, rather than with it. As for the stuff with ball in hand, he is sticking to his story that Ireland weren't the ugly maidens who crashed the beauty pageant.

"When someone throws something up and other people repeat it, then it becomes a little bit ingrained," he says. "I'm not saying we are the most expansive team, but I would certainly not say we're the least expansive team. Per match (in the World Cup), we made more passes than any other team. Per match we kicked exactly the same number of times as the All Blacks did.

"So when you look at the actual statistics we didn't offload as many times as they did, but France did and (their) results were very different. Why's that? Because if you put all the variables together then you just have to be really good at all of them. And that's what the All Blacks are. They're just really good.

"Their set-piece is good, their ability to line-break is good with the angles of running, the timing of running, the quality of the pass, the offload in behind, the kick variations. Dan Carter was back to his best. I don't know if you remember the offload he gave (against France) when he stepped in and just gave it like that without looking. Yeah, we really want to be able to do that, but we don't have the best player in the world necessarily - as Dan Carter was during that tournament."

Yet at the conclusion of the Six Nations last season Ireland looked like a side who were ready to play whatever style they wanted. So is it reasonable that, weather permitting, they might try and start this Championship as they finished the last - with the thrilling performance against Scotland? Schmidt doesn't exactly come across like a song and dance man.

"You certainly make the effort to bring as many arms to the battle as you can," he says. "One of those is to play with width, to play some inventive stuff and at the same time to be really clinical in those bits of the game you know you've got to be really good at. (But) When you're coming out of your 22, you've just got to be really accurate there because if you do make a mistake, you give an opportunity to a really good team who can quickly turn that into points."

That's a no then. Well, certainly not first up against bit-hitting Wales, where if things go wrong then the trips to Paris and London look even more forbidding.

And that's the story of Ireland going into this tournament. The backside has been torn out of the front five especially. Ireland's set-piece has been the platform for Schmidt to launch the power plays that have been the hallmark of Ireland's back-to-back Championships. For sure the aerial route has been well travelled, but it's been the coach's capacity to open defences first time, accurately, that has been critical.

So an Ireland scrum or lineout without Paul O'Connell is not the go-to zone it once was. It was a relief that Schmidt chose Rory Best as the successor, but Ulster's captain won't be taking on the job thinking he can fill those shoes.

"Yeah, look, I think he was probably one of the few guys that people would have considered as one of the 'world team' members," Schmidt says. "I think he was genuinely world-class. No team has a squad, 15, or even half a dozen world-class players. So, you know, for me he's a massive loss.

"The amount of pressure he put on the ball post-tackle - there's not many locks, Brodie Retallick springs to mind, who are so good over the ball. Paulie just got in there, hung in, and did a fantastic job. People probably don't even talk about that as part of his game because his lineout was so good, his aerial skills were so good, his defensive work-rate was so high. Yeah, he just is pretty complete. So whatever you do to replace him is not going to be as athletic or complete. But at the same time it's an opportunity for whoever replaces him."

Certainly Warren Gatland will be glad to see the back of him. The Kiwi was gone from Ireland by the time O'Connell made his debut, coincidentally against Wales in 2002, but he got to work with him for the Lions in Australia, and saw the value of the man up close.

Perhaps the Wales coach will keep behind closed doors the advantage his team enjoy with O'Connell off site. Instead Gatland has sought to pressure Schmidt - whom he played with once on a New Zealand teachers' XV - over the way Ireland play rather than who leads it.

"There'll always be perceptions: when a coach gives an opinion mostly it carries more weight," Schmidt says. "Gats has been doing it for a long time, but there are predictions where you'd go: 'Oh really?' Because a coach is perceived to have been involved in the game a very long time, and had all the analysis done, then it's given a bit more credence, I've no doubt."

That's about as much of a counter-punch as you'll get from him on that issue. In the difficult business of moving on, you feel that getting one over on Warren Gatland would provide some momentum.

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