Sport Rugby

Tuesday 23 January 2018

Slick Samoans will make life difficult for the new regime

The Joe Schmidt era should begin with a victory but neither he nor his team will be taking it for granted, writes Brendan Fanning

Ireland forwards’ coach John Plumtree makes a point during squad training
Ireland forwards’ coach John Plumtree makes a point during squad training
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

It was sometime late last week when it dawned that this will be a fairly stressful time for new Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. It's not so much that the last Kiwi to coach Ireland against Samoa, Warren Gatland, lost his job one game later. Or that the previous New Zealander in that position, Murray Kidd, was gone even sooner after coming into contact with the south sea islanders.

Rather it's a bit more perverse than that. Schmidt is in the odd position of having been universally acclaimed as the right man for the job before that job had even become available. And that creates a different sort of pressure.

The only problem with being popular with everyone – more than that, carrying the expectations of the masses – is that if things get off on the wrong foot these people can quickly become despondent by the simple expedient of there being no one else on their horizon. So if the man we all wanted hasn't worked some magic in the first act, will we even get to the interval?

This unease will be compounded by his forwards' coach, John Plumtree, being so new to this level that he will be thinking

twice about making bold suggestions on anything. There is Les Kiss of course, who has been on the scene in one guise or another for some 55 Tests, of which 29 were won.

And analyst Mervyn Murphy, who has been part of the furniture since 2001, since when his value has grown steadily to the point where he is a go-to man for players. Finally there is manager Mick Kearney who in January celebrates his second anniversary in the job.

All told then it's a group with a heap of rugby knowledge and experience across the world and at a variety of levels, but as an international unit it's only starting out. So are they nervous? Eh, yes. Very. Yet they will cope.

The feedback from the players is that the Leinster lads are giving their team-mates the 'I told you so' line about what Schmidt would bring to the party; and the rest are saying fair enough, the assessments were on the money. It's earlier still on Plumtree, but the initial impressions are of someone who knows what he's at, which is the starting point at this level.

Of the three points in the scale where you want to take over a team – November series, summer tour or Six Nations – this is probably the best, in that you are at home for all three games and your players are always fresher than their opponents. And you want to have the most manageable up first. Coincidentally, the last man to have the handiest, if we can use that term, as a starter on the November menu was Declan Kidney, with Canada, after which his autumns went straight onto the main course with Australia and South Africa (twice).

Given a choice in scheduling games against Samoa, Australia and New Zealand, you'd take it as it's been presented. The Samoans have a special place in our history. Or maybe it's us in theirs. On a cold midweek night in Lansdowne Road in November 1996, they ended the reign of Murray Kidd with a display of athleticism that made the home team look, well, unathletic.

Afterwards their manager Bryan Williams – whose son Paul will probably feature on Saturday in the midfield alongside Jonny Leota – wondered aloud how good his squad might be if they were able to hang on to their players and get adequate preparation time.

Well they won't be arriving into Dublin this week in dribs and drabs and with no seat in their pants. Their preparations started in the impressive Surrey Sports Complex in Guildford last week with a three-day camp. A man who watched the tail end of it described them as "slick". This is what you would expect from a team ranked one place above Ireland on the IRB charts.

For the first time ever they were handed three Tier 1 Tests in the June window, where they beat Italy and Scotland and lost to the Springboks in a round-robin tournament in South Africa, a schedule that reflects the efforts and investments in Samoa made by the IRB.

And yet you'd consider it a serious setback if Ireland were to lose on Saturday. Not because it will be no more challenging than dodging the high hits and dismantling their set-piece, but because Ireland has more of everything than Samoa, from cash to player-crop to facilities. Unless they have us on a summer's day in Apia, Ireland should almost always be starting as favourites.

Moreover, on this occasion the home team have the nervous new boys scurrying around ticking every box to make sure things are in place. New eras are exciting and Schmidt will see it that way more than he sees it as forbidding. It might be the captain's run on Friday by the time it looks that way, but it will take shape in time to make a winning start.

Sunday Independent

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