Sport Rugby

Thursday 18 January 2018

Special day won't cloud the big picture – Schmidt

Ireland coach warns of long road ahead as he pits wits against his native country

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

FOR Joe Schmidt, the emotions can wait.

Tomorrow, he will reach the highest point of his glittering coaching career to date and face the country of his birth but, behind the glass veneer of the Lansdowne Road box, he will do his best to block out any feelings of pride as the band play 'God Defend New Zealand' and his players face the Haka.

It will, he concedes, be a "special" moment but, while there might be divided loyalties within the four walls of his house as his son Tim cheers on his beloved All Blacks, the Ireland coach has an eye on history but is mostly focusing on seeing progress from his team.

Since the squad first gathered at Carton House on October 28, the players have spoken effusively about the new coaching team's methods, how well training has gone and how they are ready to adopt the former Leinster boss' methods and moves.

Captain Paul O'Connell yesterday spoke of how Ireland had been going really well from Monday to Friday, but everyone in the squad knows that they must match their talk when the curtain goes up.

Speaking in Toronto last June, Schmidt warned Ireland fans that his transition into the job would not be an overnight success. His comments have proved prescient.

FANTASY

"Even at the finish of (the season with) Leinster, a lot of people said 'I can't wait to see you do that with Ireland'. It is not like that, it is a whole new ball game, a whole new level and it is a different group. You have to start from scratch," he warned.

Tomorrow offers Ireland an opportunity to finish November on a high. Winning against New Zealand will remain the stuff of fantasy until an Irish team delivers it. Until then, rattling the world champions' cage would be a mark of progress.

The past three weeks have delivered the reality check the coach hoped he wouldn't get, but always knew might materialise.

"You kid yourself that guys are going to fire in straight away and have immediate understanding and continuity," he admitted. "But I've been in this situation before where the first bracket of games doesn't go according to plan.

"You live in hope that you gather momentum and once you gather momentum you gain confidence and you start to be able to express yourself a bit more on the field."

As a proud New Zealander and a rugby fanatic, Schmidt probably knows more about the All Blacks than they do about themselves.

They are the benchmark for all international rugby teams to match.

"I think some of why the All Blacks are as good as they are is because they've all that momentum and confidence, and they feel very much open to expressing themselves on the field," he said.

"It takes a while to gather that momentum. Once you can keep a group of players together, and grow that group, and start to feed in younger guys who push the guys who are already in the group, you hope that can be something that happens.

"The Six Nations is the competition that we play in and these are individual Tests but that means they're all finals and that means you've got to try to win every one of them. We obviously haven't achieved that already and it's a tough task to achieve even two out of three with the opposition we have on Sunday."

The fixture gods were not kind to Schmidt in his first season. Samoa proved a softer touch than usual, but Australia and New Zealand at home followed by trips to Twickenham and the Stade de France represent as tough a schedule as could be for the incumbent.

Development has been a key theme but the coach is going to be criticised every which way he goes.

Exposing young players to Test rugby is a delicate balancing act. Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall, Robbie Henshaw, Dave Kearney and Jack McGrath have all tasted Test rugby this month, but, when the judgment calls came in this week, the selection lay on the side of experience.

Johnny Sexton is risked after coming through training yesterday, Brian O'Driscoll and Rob Kearney also made it and Gordon D'Arcy is restored to the midfield, while the pack remains unchanged.

Some will cry conservatism and highlight Schmidt's opposite number Steve Hansen shuffling his deck by bringing in 22-year-old Steven Luatua for Liam Messam among a raft of changes from the team that beat England at Twickenham.

But the former Wales coach is working from a position of huge depth, a luxury his Irish counterpart does not have.

"A lot of teams, if they could put out their top 15, and that was all that was required, then maybe (New Zealand) might get pushed closer, but if one's out, one comes in and there's a rich depth in their squad which makes them incredibly hard to beat," said Schmidt.

"You can't get them at a vulnerable moment because the vulnerable moments, selection-wise, just don't really exist. You've got to force those vulnerable moments in the 80 minutes that you're on the field.

"It was written about some of their U-20s from the 2011 World Cup, how many of them have gone into the All Black environment. That is because they force their way in with performances that demand they get recognised.

"I think at the same time we would be just as open to those sort of performances, but the challenge for the young Irish players is to get the opportunity, to force your way into their provincial sides.

"I think there are a number of them, the Paddy Jacksons, the Robbie Henshaws, a couple of guys who are injured, guys like Stuart Olding, who played on the North American tour, Iain Henderson, who is coming on well.

"Those are some of the guys who could potentially come through in this environment. At the same time, you really need the experienced players who know what it takes around those younger players."

Schmidt is trying to impose a new style and culture in a pressure-cooker environment, with the public demanding instant results and the players struggling with the information they are processing.

Tomorrow he faces a team so comfortable in their own skin they can adapt to whatever is thrown at them.

"They have the ability to play whatever style is required, you've got to be adaptable to conditions. Their ability to play on the hoof and transform situations where they're under pressure into sudden pressure points for the opposition is incredible," the Ireland coach said.

"The amount of times you saw guys having the All Blacks under pressure and there's a lost ball and you're scrambling back to save a try in front of your own goal posts, where moments earlier you're putting pressure on them..."

Applying that pressure and starting with the intensity and accuracy so lacking against Australia will be a start. No one who turns up at Lansdowne Road is expecting a win, but they demand a performance at the very least.

Their coach deserves a response this week against his home country. He may be able to block out the feelings, but coaching against the All Blacks is a significant day in the life of Joe Schmidt.

"It's special," he conceded. "I'd like to reflect on that, but when you're coaching you don't tend to reflect too much, you tend to be thinking to that next couple of minutes of what you can provide for the team – good decisions, good direction, appropriate substitutions."

The coach will be tuned in and he'll be praying his team will be too. No one expects a win, but signs of improvement are a must.

Verdict: Ireland 22 New Zealand 40

Ireland v New Zealand,

Live, tomorrow, RTE 2/BBC 2, 2.0

Irish Independent

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