Friday 24 November 2017

Sinead Kissane: Maybe Storm Joe has been brewing ever since disappointing World Cup exit

Joe Schmidt
Joe Schmidt
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

There was a moment during the Ireland press conference at Carton House yesterday when Joe Schmidt turned to Jamie Heaslip, who was sitting beside him at the top table, and asked him a question.

Schmidt is always asking questions of his players behind the scenes but generally not at a press conference in a room full of reporters, journalists and TV cameras. I had asked Schmidt what the collective confidence is like going into this Six Nations.

"I, from the outside, got the feeling that it's pretty good. And Jamie, from the inside, what are your thoughts?" Schmidt smiled to his vice-captain. "We're in a very good mind space," was one of the lines Heaslip replied with.

Schmidt and Heaslip made all the right noises yesterday despite a late double hit to the team as they lost the leadership experience of Sean O'Brien and Rob Kearney. Tomorrow's Six Nations opener against Wales should feel like the start of a new era in Irish rugby, or in more mundane terms, the start of a new four-year Rugby World Cup cycle.

But as well as the gaping hole that the absence of Paul O'Connell and Peter O'Mahony amongst others leave, the defeat to Argentina in the RWC quarter-final is still stuck in my gut. Yesterday, almost understandably, Heaslip wasn't interested in looking back: "It's in the past, it's done, you can't keep looking back on this."


But I still don't think we've got an answer which fully explains why that performance against Argentina went so wrong irrespective of the fact that Ireland were without five of their best players.

Maybe Ireland started to believe some of the hype after the win over France because the image of France as some sort of world-beaters was swallowed whole by most of us. The French were made out to be something they weren't and the energy consumed with beating them meant there didn't seem to be enough in reserve for the real threat which came from Argentina.

That may come across as a terribly simple explanation but sometimes it can be that simple. And never let me hear another word of trying to avoid playing a team in a tournament again, even if it is New Zealand. It all played right into Argentina's hands. Where was the fear of playing them?

But no-one will have learnt more from that defeat than Schmidt which was an aberration in his time-line as head coach. In the official 98-page match programme for Ireland's first pool game against Canada last September, just two paragraphs were given over to describe the Ireland head coach but the point was made in the first sentence.

"Joe Schmidt is in danger of taking on a God-like status in Ireland," warned the opening line.

A view that Schmidt was "in danger of taking on a God-like status" before the tournament should be dismissed as a reflection of others rather than the man himself. Ask Schmidt if he ever doubts himself as a head coach and he would quickly shoot back that he doubts himself all the time. The reality is that he is the most successful coach to ever work in Irish rugby with two European Cups and two Six Nations.

The image that he could do no wrong became a spin-off of that success. But that's all it was. An image.

Schmidt is a realist and a pragmatist, not a romantic risk-taker who believes that change should be made for change's sake or just because the public demands it. He didn't react directly to various calls for Rory Best to be made captain. Instead he took his lead off the players and who they wanted to take over from Paul O'Connell and he then endorsed the decision for Best to become the new skipper.

He didn't blink either when Brian O'Driscoll publicly backed Garry Ringrose for a possible start against Wales tomorrow. Schmidt left Ringrose out of the extended squad but worked it his own way by bringing him in for training this week.

Ringrose trained with the squad right up to yesterday but there was none of the overwhelming pressure on him which could be argued is a good thing for a 21-year-old kid.

So where do we go from there? The past can inform the present when it comes to Schmidt's record even though the absence of so much experience tomorrow may become the bottom line.

Schmidt has never lost to the same country twice in a Test match (warm-up games not included). Since he took over, Ireland have lost to Australia and New Zealand in the 2013 November Tests (which was the only time that a Schmidt-led Irish team has lost back-to-back games and that came in the first month he was in charge. It reminds me of what they used to say in Munster: Nobody beats Munster twice) and England and Wales in the 2014 and 2015 Six Nations respectively.

Returning to Carton House this week for the first time since the Tuesday before Ireland's first game at the Rugby World Cup last September, it felt like everything and nothing had changed. Same setting, different landscape. The mood seemed quieter at the start of training yesterday but maybe that's because Paddy 'Rala' O'Reilly is no longer the Ireland bag-man and he would usually have his own unique choice of tunes blaring out. The standard Schmidt expects of his players remains the same.

I noticed only one dropped ball as the team ran through one particular drill at the start of their session yesterday. And CJ Stander looked like he was born to be here and appeared to be taking on Schmidt's advice to new players: "Fit in first".

Don't expect Schmidt to suddenly bin the kick-and-chase game which could leave Ireland chasing this Six Nations from the off if they lose to Wales tomorrow. But he did hint at a more expansive game-plan (maybe that was only for Warren Gatland's ears!) if conditions suit but the forecast is unfavourable and gusty for tomorrow.

The way we're going with the alphabetical names of all these storms we will hit the letter "J" any time soon. And maybe Storm Joe has been brewing ever since that disappointing display against Argentina last October.

Schmidt elicited an honest and forthright answer from Heaslip when he took on the impromptu role of asking a question yesterday. But this is what he does with the players all the time.

Tomorrow we will find out if the players can answer the really tough questions Wales will ask of them.

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