Tuesday 22 May 2018

Neil Francis: Joe Schmidt's relentless pursuit of perfection overwhelmed the Irish players

Fear factor proved too much for Irish squad to handle at World Cup

Joe Schmidt realises the gaping limitations of this current squad. He will pick a conservative and experienced team. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt realises the gaping limitations of this current squad. He will pick a conservative and experienced team. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

I went to my first Schools Cup game of the season last week. There is something reassuring about the schools game - the refreshing honesty of endeavour and purity of the game.

In political speak, the pro game is socialism - the schools game is unrestricted free market. The theme I found most restorative was the lack of fear of playing. The other thing I found really encouraging - I don't remember seeing one box-kick by a scrum-half off a lineout. A game of rugby without box-kicking - it's like telly without the ads.

In the schools game there is a lower level of pressure, yet lose and you are out. There are high stakes in the RBS Six Nations yet you can lose one match and still prevail - still the fear of consequence is paralysing.

Last year on the final day of the championship we had a Halley's Comet of a day. Teams laid aside their fears and look what happened; we got a once-in-a-hundred-years occasion.

Fear, as it has been in the pro era, is the prime motivating factor. Whatever you do or don't do, don't make a mistake.

I have watched the schools game for nearly 40 years and have yet to see what commentators call a 'schoolboy error' on a scale that I witness in the pro game. The schoolboys should take a class action for the slight.

What principles govern Ireland's performances? Joe Schmidt's all-purpose game has been abandoned and embalmed for a game of rigid beliefs. The greater picture has been narrowed in scope but nobody cares really as back-to-back Championships have been attained.

It worked well too at the World Cup - Ireland were on course up until they played Argentina. There were reasons for the non-performance but maybe we missed the biggest one - fear. Once again it is central to the story.

Joe Schmidt is the best and most successful coach to ever ply his trade on this island. Whatever you say about what he does and the way that he does it you will find in this case the winds and the waves are always on the side of the ablest navigator.


The team did not perform despite his pedigree in knockout rugby. How did that happen? The answer is fear and this factor more than four or five vital missing players did for Ireland. As the World Cup progressed through the pool stages Schmidt's players found that his relentless push for perfection become too much for the squad.

When Schmidt faces the press, his media face is accommodating, friendly and direct but he cannot mask how strict and severe he was with his squad for a sustained World Cup period. Coaching is a vocational pursuit and maybe as the weeks went by Schmidt's relentless zeal overwhelmed certain members of the squad - they were afraid of playing by the time the business end of RWC Championship came about.

Schmidt is not the only one. From what I know about Eddie Jones - the England players are in for a rude shock - Jones is absolutely ruthless on and off the park. He is up at 5am in the morning and cutting and analysing video by 6am and at it until dark.

England will unquestionably be a better team as a result of it - but it has become clear that the teams that will succeed in the Six Nations will have coaches with forceful and even obsessive personalities. You might not enjoy the preparation but success will be the fruit of your labours - unless of course you overdo it.

I am fairly certain that Schmidt harboured thoughts of getting to the final and most of the squad rowed in with that notion. Yet when the final day came some were relieved it was all over.

They had been squeezed too much - the video sessions too critical, the man management too forceful. As the competition moved on the weight of the plan became oppressive.

Players over a period of time lose their ability to assimilate any more information or training. Maybe a tipping point had been reached. We Irish as a race have many great qualities and we punch above our weight in many orders - but as we reach the business end of international competition - maybe we are not as strong as some of our competition mentally. You always get the impression that the farther along the competition a German football team get, the stronger they become mentally

Schmidt has managed to get most of his teams to perform best the closer they got to the prize but the World Cup was a step too far and maybe he will have to adjust his methods. It is true that the Six Nations is a tight six-week window - probably the optimum time for a demanding closed order environment.

Championship windows can be dispassionate and clinical at the best of times - the trick is to know when the law of diminishing marginal returns kicks in.

Also a recognition that when fear of opposition is superseded by fear of playing. Smart coaches most of the time realise when they have overdone things. With two Championships on the hop it is important maybe to return to the previous protocols and go again.

The only hope this team has lays on the ability of this coach to prepare them as he has done successfully for the last two years. There was a speed bump last September/October but great coaches recover themselves and plan and operate differently.

Schmidt realises the gaping limitations of this current squad. He will pick a conservative and experienced team. He will play a pretty limited style of rugby and his team will be competitive.

The conundrum he has is that with such a deficit of quality, particularly in the front five, he may have no option but to impose his will again to get a reaction.

Irish Independent

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