Tuesday 21 May 2019

Schmidt will be hoping to dodge speed bumps on very different Italian journey

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

It is not easy working for Joe Schmidt. Anyone on that roster will tell you that the image held by the general public of this genial man with a happy knack for coaching winning rugby is not the full picture. He is wired. On match days especially he carries a Semtex warning.

So you'd imagine team manager Paul Dean also lives on edge. Dean is a quiet man whom, if you didn't remember from his playing days, you wouldn't recognise him from Adam. We suspect he has already done an extra reccie to Rome and walked, cycled, bussed and driven by car the route from the team hotel to Stadio Olimpico.

We were a little surprised to hear Schmidt put another gallon in the tank of Busgate in the run-up to the Scotland game a fortnight ago, and inferred that he was already antsy. If, God forbid, there is an unscheduled change of lane on the estimated 15-minute journey from their sumptuous lodgings on the Via Veneto to the stadium then cover your ears and adopt the brace position.

Of course a delay would be appropriate, for Ireland have an unfortunate history with timekeeping in Italy. Indeed it would be small beer compared to perhaps the most calamitous day in our Test history.

It goes back to the days when the locals were emerging fast as a very tidy rugby team, while Ireland were disappearing with similar speed. As part of the build-up to the 1995 World Cup, Ireland played a Test against Italy in Treviso.

On a balmy May evening a trip that had already hit a few speed bumps turned into a full-on write-off.

The jerking around started with the hotel forgetting to include the IRFU president on the accommodation list. Next, and a good deal more important, was the wretched state and location of the training pitch assigned to the Ireland squad for the pre-Test session. It was basically a loosely ploughed field. All part of the grand Italian plan.

On match day, the ace in the hole: the team bus didn't turn up. The 10 or 15 minutes' delay in arriving at Murrayfield in 2017 - Ireland were slow to everything that day - was nothing compared to the stress levels in 1995 of team manager Noel Murphy trying to rustle up enough cabs to get his players to Stadio Monigo. He ended up frantically flagging a few down on the road.

By the time they actually got to the stadium, they were dog late, and in a panic. They asked referee Tony Spreadbury to put the game back. No chance. Italy beat them out the gate. A first ever win for the Azzurri over Ireland, it would be the first of three straight wins for them in the fixture.

Never mind.

In the team hotel that night Guinness put up a free barrel. Everyone - players, alickadoos, travelling press - waded in. As we departed the scene, the lasting memory was of Ulster's Davy Tweed - a big man with very little to recommend him - holding court. He had won his third cap that night.

By morning we were greeted with an interesting little showdown at reception where Noel Murphy was having a conniption over the bar bill he had just been handed. Current IRFU CEO Philip Browne, then union secretary, suggested that maybe it was the press who had waded in behind the bar. Eh no, Philip.

The night porter was summoned. His description of the culprit who had liberated so much liquor was sufficiently accurate for Murphy to settle the bill on the spot. Worse was to follow. Before the team bus could leave the car park a few players had to fish out their gear bags from the hold and return items from the rooms. Truly it was the walk of shame.

As we watched the bus pull away from the hotel, our thoughts drifted to South Africa and the World Cup, and what clusterfuck would present itself there. Not as bad as feared, as it turned out: successful escape from the pool, followed by a quarter-final tonking by France who had taken into account the small matter of preparing for shifts at altitude. Oh well.

So it is comforting in a way that on match days Schmidt loses his 'neighbourly Joe' demeanour when the jacks paper is unquilted or the stadium playlist doesn't feature the right tunes. Currently he is in that horrible coaching limbo where nothing he says carries quite the same weight because the players know he has his bags bought, if not quite packed.

That will only get worse the closer we get to Japan.

For today, though, it should be straightforward. First things first: get the bus; take the right route; take a deep breath.

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