Sunday 24 March 2019

'Yeah, it would be nice to tick it off' - Joe Schmidt aiming to correct one flaw on his Ireland CV against Wales

Joe Schmidt. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Cardiff will feature prominently in Joe Schmidt's thoughts when he returns to New Zealand, dons his slippers and lights up a pipe to reflect on his decade in Irish rugby.

It was at the Millennium Stadium that Leinster produced their most magnificent moment of his glittering three-year stay, coming back from the dead to down Northampton Saints on that unforgettable May day in 2011.

He has been back to the stadium six times since and enjoys a 50pc record, but the importance of the defeats far out-weigh that of the victories.

The World Cup win over France is flanked by a facile pool victory over Canada and a warm-up defeat of Warren Gatland's Wales.

But when the chips have been down, Ireland have come up short; whether in the quarter-final defeat to Argentina and in the Six Nations losses to their nearest neighbours from across the Irish Sea.

Schmidt has achieved everything there is to achieve in this tournament except for winning in Cardiff.

The city was once Ireland's play-ground. Even during the country's most barren spell they always won at the Cardiff Arms Park, but the dynamic has shifted in recent times.

Ireland's last competitive win away to Wales came during Declan Kidney's final season in charge, the day Simon Zebo controlled the ball with his heel in the lead-up to Cian Healy's try.

Two years later, Schmidt arrived in town with Ireland for the first time with his team 160 minutes away from a Grand Slam.

Paul O'Connell was superb on his 100th cap, but Gatland did a number on his fellow Kiwi and Ireland simply couldn't break the Welsh defence down despite having chances.

Two years later, they returned for a Friday-night fixture with Rob Howley in charge of Wales.

Conor Murray went down with an arm injury before half-time and played on for far too long they lost their way. Had Robbie Henshaw's maul positioning been better they might have rescued the situation, but it wasn't to be.

On Saturday, Schmidt returns with his team on the up again to face a Wales team on a historic run of wins and on the cusp of a first Grand Slam since 2012.

Winning would be a sweet way to finish a difficult campaign and send the team back to their provinces on a high.

For Schmidt, it would be another string to his sagging bow.

"Yeah, it would be nice to tick it off," the coach said.

"It's not so much the venue... I know that the home crowd get right behind the Welsh team there.

"I also know that we'll have lots of travelling support and that they'll be very vocal so we look forward to getting that support and I know last year that we kind of had a performance that was very up and down against Wales.

"When it was up, I thought it was super and when it was down they got some tries that were frustrating and were well-earned by them but it was frustrating in that we didn't cut them off.

"You'd be amazed how little it has to do with what it means to me, it's in the players' hands, it's their domain.

"My job is just trying to ensure that they feel they were well prepared, that they feel that they understand how Wales are going to turn up and defend or attack.

"I will work with the other coaching staff to try to best manage the playing group between now and then because that's a tricky thing in itself in a slightly condensed week."

The completist in Schmidt will want to finish the job.

The biggest unchecked box remains the World Cup quarter-final win, that itch that has lingered since Cardiff in 2015. All going to plan he'll get another go in Japan.

He'll never get the chance to lead Ireland to a win over New Zealand in his homeland, but he'll make do with the historic wins in Chicago and Dublin and his victories over South Africa in Cape Town and Australia in Melbourne and Sydney.

He's won three Championships and a Grand Slam secured at Twickenham and plenty of November days to remember; his legacy is secured but the winner inside will drive him on to achieve a few more big firsts before he departs in November.

They played together a long time ago, but there does not appear to be much love lost between Schmidt and Gatland.

The former Irish coach rarely misses a chance to get under his successor's skin, last year offering a pretty glib apology for upsetting him a few seasons before.

After winning a World Cup warm-up in Dublin in 2015, Gatland made his infamous observation that: "I don't think Ireland play a lot of rugby but they've been incredibly successful... they were really narrow at times."

Three years on, he returned to the theme but his words were pretty hollow.

"So I apologise to Joe (Schmidt) if I upset him a couple of years ago, if I was critical of the way they played," he said in the aftermath of a dramatic Irish win at Lansdowne Road.

"I thought they moved the ball brilliantly well, and they were so exciting the way they played today.

"I think they were really good. So credit to Joe and the team and their attacking staff, and they are definitely going in the right direction."

The teams will meet twice more in friendlies before travelling to Japan and could yet meet on the biggest stage of all if their trajectory keeps going in the current direction.

A Six Nations win over Wales in Cardiff would allow Schmidt to sign off with a full house and set the team up for their autumn adventures.

And while it is not about his own personal achievements, somewhere inside there'll be a gnawing desire to tick that box so that Cardiff glows a little brighter in his memories when he's done with all of this.

Irish Independent

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