Monday 19 February 2018

Summer gives Schmidt food for thought

Ireland coach will have learned some crucial lessons as he looks to hit ground running, writes David Kelly

Paul O'Connell should be captain
Paul O'Connell should be captain
Sexton will be crucial to an attack-minded approach
David Kelly

David Kelly

To those who know him intimately, it won't be all that surprising to have learned that Joe Schmidt has already launched an elaborate scouting system on every possible Italian player Ireland will meet in 2014.

You can see him now sitting on the beach somewhere, furtively secreting a series of stat-chocked A4s behind a copy of 'Hola!' magazine or some such.

What is surprising is that Schmidt's new Ireland side will not face Italy until the penultimate game of next season's Six Nations championship; before that, the Kiwi has six games to negotiate.

Two of them will be against the combatants from this summer's always engrossing if at times aesthetically displeasing Lions tour.

Already, just days out from its conclusion, the losing coach has been handed his papers and impolitely shunted from the premises, with few in Australia lamenting the departure of the Kiwi-born Robbie Deans.

Back in Ireland, where a nation's egregious parochialism continues to thrive in a sport which will next season provide not one homegrown coach to lead its professional sides, Schmidt will be keenly divesting the lessons of this series.

And, added to the surfeit of knowledge gained by his sojourn in North America, Schmidt will be primed to tackle the Australians and his fellow New Zealanders in November.

Ten things Schmidt learned this summer

New Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt
New Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt

O'Driscoll is still indispensable

One of the first things Leinster learned when Schmidt pitched up in Dublin 4 was that, although an ardent admirer of reputation, the coach was not cravenly smitten by status.

Hence, Brian O'Driscoll, Ireland's greatest player, was treated in the same fashion as a first-year academy player, much to the stunned shock of some of the player's peers.

The mutual respect between Schmidt and O'Driscoll is hence stronger than any previous bond the player has had with a coach; that will not mean any addition of privilege.

Schmidt, akin to the gut instinct that guided Gatland, would never hesitate to drop O'Driscoll.

But, unlike his fellow Kiwi, he has merely the limited luxury of four provinces to select from, not four countries. Hence, O'Driscoll remains undroppable for Ireland not just because he still represents the best option but also because, sadly, few alternatives have realistically presented themselves.

O'Driscoll may not be untouchable any more, but for Ireland, he remains indispensable. Given Schmidt's broad vision for an attacking game, one should be thankful that, unlike Gatland, he appreciates the hands of BOD.

O'Connell should be captain

While the great Irish public would probably demand that O'Driscoll be awarded the Ireland captaincy to undo perceived personal slights by professional coaches, Schmidt will avoid such mawkish sentiments.

History can now assess that the removal of the captaincy from O'Driscoll was clearly hamfisted; even the incumbent, Jamie Heaslip, was visibly affected in his leadership capabilities.

Heaslip suffered an inconsistent Six Nations – who didn't? – as the unchallenged No 8 but when unburdened with Leinster, he was one of the best performers in Europe.

One senses that privately Heaslip wouldn't be unduly disheartened were Schmidt – a bit more subtly than his predecessor, mind – decided to temporarily postpone this uncertain experiment and restore the obvious, fit candidate to the post, Paul O'Connell.

Murray mint

Instead of the ignorant one-eyed view of the Lions tour being shrouded by a dearth of green influences, those who did contribute should be celebrated.

Scrum-half Conor Murray's contributions have raised his currency globally; he is already a firm favourite to start the opening Test against New Zealand in four years' time.

Murray has adopted the confident composure of a player who has seemingly shrugged off much of the indecision that has at times mocked his progression when struggling at provincial and international level under indecisive coaches.

As he demonstrated with that decisive third-Test intervention, he should be a dominant figure for Ireland next season and belatedly finetune his partnership with Jonathan Sexton.

Set-piece is king

Schmidt is no idle romantic dreamer; his Leinster side concocted a stunning cocktail of craft and graft. The Lions tour reiterated, even if to the detriment of beauty, that beastly endeavour still rules.

Ireland's scrum remains, still, hopelessly reliant on Mike Ross while the national union still fumbles in the dark in the quest to locate a scrummaging guru.

Ireland's line-out was another constant thorn in their own side last term; despite the cheerleading for the Lions, Rory Best is more a part of the problem than many dare to admit.

Schmidt will hope Richardt Strauss can provide security there, added to O'Connell's comforting return. Sexton's genius at restart time will not cause Schmidt one extra moment of sleeplessness.

Sexton an ally in spirit

Schmidt's mantra is to develop an attacking, multi-phased offloading game reliant on the skills he has managed to introduce in his time at Leinster; whether the other provincial players can match up to these expectations remains to be seen.

As important as the basic skills will be the spirit of engagement; the turning point of the final Lions Test, quite overlooked by many commentators, was the decision of Sexton to launch an audacious attacking punt from his '22', spurning the jaded Gatland tactic of launching a defensive hoof downfield.

This is in tune with the former Leinster coach's thinking and, while at times Ireland under Kidney were sometimes unwatchable – and their Grand Slam-winning campaign was hardly a thing of beauty – Schmidt's Ireland will spur the soul.

The importance of managing injuries

The resuscitation of Alex Corbisiero and Tommy Bowe was nothing short of remarkable; albeit the fates horribly mocked those such as Cian Healy and O'Connell.

The Lions assemble the best medical minds from the power of four, including Ireland's Eanna Falvey, and their efforts were admirable throughout, even if it is valid to query the retention of some injured players unable to realistically challenge for Test berths.

Injuries, more so than ever in the modern game, are inevitable. Nevertheless, Ireland's injury sequence last season broached all known logic.

We would have liked to have been a fly on the wall when Kidney discussed this matter with the IRFU honchos who nodded politely before handing him his P45. One dearly hopes Kidney has apprised Schmidt of his opinion concerning the raft of soft tissue injuries that blighted his last season in charge.

Irish rugby needs to ensure that such an annus horribilis is never repeated.

Knowing your referee

It will not have escaped Schmidt's attention that the inexperienced Chris Pollock, leaning heavily towards discriminating tacklers rather than ball-carriers in the first Test, pinged Irish players on four separate occasions.

It hardly helps that the laws of the game are so ambiguous on the subject that even supposed rugby bores are unsure of how a game may be interpreted from one ruck to the next, never mind from game to game.

That O'Driscoll, one of the finest poachers the world has ever seen, was nearly yellow-carded for simply repeating the feats that have made him a master groundhog was indicative of the dilemma facing every rugby team.

In the second Test, Craig Joubert concentrated on enforcing the rules through the prism of the ball-carrier before engaging their subsequent tacklers; consequently the Lions reaped the rewards.

Schmidt sides haven't always responded well when referees have offered differing interpretations – he has suffered their wrath at scrum-time too, particularly with Nigel Owens – and he doesn't need to be told that the cost at international level is even more punitive.

Madigan is the real deal

Away from the Lions tour, Schmidt will have been enthused at the impact made by Ian Madigan on the North American tour, confirming the suspicion that he has timed his run perfectly to become Sexton's permanent stand-in stand-off.

Madigan will have some significant rumblestrips as he continues down the path towards establishing himself as Leinster's Heineken Cup incumbent; No 10s are supposed to suffer vacillations in form as they accumulate knowledge.

Matt O'Connor is a kindred spirit of Schmidt and he is likely to allow Madigan free rein to hone his attacking instincts which will benefit both club and country in the seasons to come.

Toner's great leap

After even he continued to be uncertain as to Devin Toner's unsuitability to become an established player with Leinster, it was quite indicative that the sky-scraping Meath man finished the term underpinning the province's twin title tilt.

Now comes the hard bit – establishing himself with Ireland. Last season, Toner belatedly backed up some determined talk with consistent performances for Leinster. This season, he should be demanding inclusion in the international squad.

Remembering his Kipling

Schmidt's awkward appearance on the 'The Late Late Show' wasn't merely about promoting charity – it was also a reminder that although his role is a very public one, his life is a very private one.

And yet he will somehow remain public property, becoming routinely exposed to the widespread abuse regularly meted out to his predecessors, whether on text machines, online or by armchair know-it-alls.

And, as last week's parochial pantomime around O'Driscoll demonstrated, even making hard-nosed professional decisions can invite repugnant personal abuse.

Schmidt has always managed to make decisions without having to listen to ill-informed white noise – at times the sound will become unbearable but he will stick to his guns and ignore the hype.

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