Thursday 22 February 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Critics won't forgive Joe Schmidt for proving them wrong

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt, left, and captain Paul O'Connell with the RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship in 2014
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt, left, and captain Paul O'Connell with the RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship in 2014
'In time it will be seen that in getting two Six Nations titles from the limited team he had available to him Schmidt produced a silk purse from a sow's' Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Eamonn Sweeney

Joe Schmidt should be ashamed of himself. He takes over an Irish team which had won three of its previous 10 Six Nations matches and what does he do with it? He steers it to eight wins out of 10 and two Six Nations titles in a row. What a spoofer.

But what would you expect? Before he got the Ireland job he'd been equally unimpressive with Leinster as they struggled to back-to-back Heineken Cup titles, scoring two of the three highest points totals in finals history en route. Why couldn't they have scored the two highest totals? Not good enough Joe.

Somehow the Irish public allowed itself to be brainwashed into thinking that these were significant achievements on Schmidt's part. But now after a catastrophic World Cup campaign where Ireland got as far as they've ever got in the tournament and an entirely disgraceful pair of performances which saw an understrength team draw against Wales before failing narrowly to secure a third win in 45 years in Paris, the knives are out.

Watching the pursuit of Joe Schmidt by a section of the Irish media is a bit like watching a pack of particularly unpleasant jackals close in on a wounded lion.

But at least the jackals are doing it because they have to eat and may well be avenging some slight inflicted by the lion. Schmidt's pursuers, on the other hand, don't look like a particularly malnourished bunch and you'd be forgiven for thinking that he hadn't actually done anything to them personally.

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But that's where you'd be wrong. Because what Schmidt has done is prove them wrong, and there are plenty of Irishmen who'll never forgive anyone for that. This may be something of a national trait: after all, the history of the state has seen power shared between two parties, the major difference between whom is the question of who was in the right in 1922.

So Schmidt finds himself pursued by pundits who seem to see themselves as Javerts to Schmidt's Valjean, the men who know the real character of this miscreant held in high esteem by society and believe that eventually their quarry will slip up and reveal his true nature to the world.

Sport is not an exact science and there's no way of proving someone's analysis to be empirically wrong or right. But the facts, as they appear to me anyway, are that Joe Schmidt has been the most successful Irish coach in living memory, that he has achieved this despite being in charge of one of the weakest Irish teams to take the field in the past decade, that his current predicament owes a great deal to a freakish injury crisis and that, should the IRFU take the advice of his most strident critics and show the New Zealander the door, a replacement of comparable calibre is unlikely to be available.

Ireland Grand Slam winning team 2009

It's instructive to compare the team which Schmidt guided to a second Six Nations title on the trot last year with the strongest sides his predecessors had at their disposal, Declan Kidney's 2009 Grand Slammers, Eddie O'Sullivan's 2006 team which won the Triple Crown and lost the Six Nations on points difference to France and Warren Gatland's 2001 side which won four out of five games, beating England and France.

Starting with the backs, the most obvious difference is that last year Schmidt, unlike his predecessors, didn't have the services of Brian O'Driscoll. Watching Ireland fail to fully capitalise on territorial advantage in Paris made you think of how many logjams over the years had been broken by O'Driscoll, how many times he transformed half a yard of room into a wriggle and plunge for the line.

In fact he did it so often that it was easy to take it for granted and think of it as just Drico doing the Drico thing. But no-one in the Six Nations is doing that thing now and his loss to Ireland is incalculable.

In 2006 and 2009 O'Driscoll was joined in the centre by Gordon D'Arcy for probably the best midfield combination this country has ever seen. Last year Schmidt had to make do with Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne, a combination which, despite Henshaw's potential, is not in the same league.

In 2001 Gatland had Shane Horgan and Denis Hickie on the wings, last year Schmidt had Tommy Bowe and Luke Fitzgerald, both of whom have declined since their appearance on the 2009 team. The 2009 Rob Kearney for that matter looked a better player than the 2015 version. And neither was as good as Geordan Murphy, who occupied the full-back slot in 2006.

Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton are among the nominees the Hibernia College IRUPA Players’ Player of the Year for 2015. Paul O'Connell and Robbie Henshaw complete the shortlist.

The Sexton-Murray half-back combination was the one part of the 2015 back-line which loses little in comparison with previous teams. But would you really select it ahead of the battle-hardened O'Gara-Stringer combo of 2006 with its near telepathic understanding?

Last year's front row of Ross, Best and Healy wasn't bad. But it hardly compares to the 2001 Clohessy, Wood and Hayes trio and doesn't look quite as impregnable as the all-Munster Horan, Flannery and Hayes unit which saw service in both 2006 and 2009.

Paul O'Connell played a huge part in last year's success but he was probably at his peak in 2009 when he had Donncha O'Callaghan as a partner rather than Devin Toner.

The Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip and Peter O'Mahony back row which Schmidt had to call on last year is as good as any Ireland have fielded but not notably better than the 2009 one which contained Stephen Ferris, David Wallace and a younger Heaslip. And of course this year Schmidt has been without O'Mahony, O'Connell, Healy, Ross and effectively O'Brien.

It seems fair to say that the 2015 team on an individual level trails far behind the 2006 team in the backs and a certain distance behind the 2009 side in the pack. Both of those predecessors looked stronger overall.

Ireland's Mike McCarthy after picking up a concussion. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile

The decline in the standard of players available to Schmidt is most graphically illustrated by the elevation of Nathan White and Mike McCarthy to first-choice status. The sudden breakthrough of two 34-year-olds who'd struggled to make the bench previously might be heartwarming, but it also indicates a paucity of options.

France's victory last week owed much to the obliteration of Tadhg Furlong in the scrum, but with Ross, Healy and Marty Moore hors de combat the youngster is effectively a third or fourth choice who has been promoted sooner than Schmidt would like.

In 2001, Gatland's team was backboned by the Munster side which went on to narrowly lose the following year's Heineken Cup final to Leicester. In 2006 Munster were good enough to win the tournament and Leinster to reach the semi-finals. And three years later it was Leinster who were European kingpins and Munster who made the last four.

By comparison, this year saw no province reach the knock-out stages of the tournament for the first time since we started taking the competition seriously back in the 1990s. For all the talk of big-money French clubs taking over the European Cup, Leinster and Munster also got trimmed by the kind of English sides they'd have dispatched post haste back in their pomp. The provinces are at a low, low ebb.

Yet in order to flog Schmidt, critics feel bound to pretend there is actually a host of talent at his disposal, eager to be let off the leash so that they may dazzle spectators and the opposition with their attacking flair. This is as far from the truth as your average election promise.

And the stereotyping of the Irish boss as cautious and negative means you have to overlook the fact that his Leinster team were probably the most exciting side ever to play in the Heineken Cup.

Brian O'Driscoll is attended to by team doctor

But then he had O'Driscoll, D'Arcy, Nacewa, Horgan, a fully fit Sexton and a confident Rob Kearney. Last Sunday he had Payne, Trimble, Dave Kearney, a battered Sexton and a listless Rob Kearney.

In time it will be seen that in getting two Six Nations titles from the limited team he had available to him Schmidt produced a silk purse from a sow's ear. But right now the loudest voices belong to those who aren't content with disparaging the team's current performances but want to depict the genuine achievements of the previous two years as essentially fraudulent.

As was the case with Jack Charlton, those who were sickened by the manager's success waited in the long grass for him. The unusually vengeful nature of criticism may have something to do with the noxious amount of jealousy mixed up with it.

Oh well. It's all fun and games till somebody loses a manager.

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