Saturday 17 February 2018

The Schmidt effect: Air of optimism for Six Nations

Yes, the closing moments of All Blacks match left scars, but the Ireland boss is now determined to 'do the simple things really well' to win Six Nations

Joe Schmidt shouts instructions to his players at the Aviva Stadium.
Joe Schmidt shouts instructions to his players at the Aviva Stadium.
DEJECTION: The Ireland players leave the pitch after defeat to the All Blacks in November.
And send them homeward... Chris Gray, David Sole and Finlay Calder celebrate against England in 1990.
Joe Schmidt with Brian O’Driscoll after the 2011 Heineken Cup final victory.
Leader of men: Joe Schmidt with Ireland captain Paul O’Connell
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Twenty-four years have passed and rugby has changed utterly since the match Joe Schmidt identifies as his first Six Nations memory, but ahead of his first direct involvement in the competition, there is, perhaps, no better reference point for the Ireland coach.

The events he watched at Murrayfield on St Patrick's Day, 1990 provided the old competition (Five nations) with one of its greatest days as Scotland marched out on to the Edinburgh turf for their Grand Slam decider against England, sang the most fearsome rendition of 'Flower of Scotland' and then tore into Will Carling's side and beat them 13-7.

It summed up all that was good about this claustrophobic collection of matches between cranky neighbouring nations, laced with the nuance of centuries of shared and not always friendly history.

For the watching teenager, cheering on the Scots from the other side of the world, it was a fascinating introduction.

Over the years he has moved closer to the action during his two spells in Ireland and time in France, but until now, the tournament has been a welcome social break from the day-to-day routine of club coaching.

During his time at Leinster, Ireland games gave him a chance to have a pint and go to the rugby like an ordinary supporter, albeit a fan with a vested interest in seeing his players come through fit and in form.

This spring, the Championship has moved from a nice distraction between the Heineken Cup pool and knockout stages to become the focal point of the New Zealander's working year, one of three windows in the season when he gets out on the training pitch with his players and works the magic that delivered so much in three memorable seasons at the RDS.

Much has changed in rugby since that amateur era highlight, but the Six Nations, for all its razzmatazz, remains remarkably unchanged in format.

"It's a bit of a throwback," Schmidt acknowledges. "It never worried me as a club coach, because of the way it was placed at the end of the European pools. Then you would pick up again for the play-offs after the Six Nations – it actually provided a nice hiatus where you got a bit of breathing space.

"You'd always end up with a couple of dings at the end of the Heineken Cup pools and you'd look at it and say, 'well, in two months' time that guy might be back for the play-offs', so I always felt it was reasonably well placed from that perspective and it was also well placed because it gave me an opportunity to get along for a few games and I'd enjoy a pint of Guinness and actually just watching a game.

"You'd inevitably watch a few players who you were hoping would be involved beyond the Six Nations back in the Heineken play-offs, but I really enjoyed the competition as a spectator."

That teenager cheered Scotland on because they were the underdogs all those years ago. "I think we all have a soft spot for the underdog and they did a sensational job against overwhelming favourites in the English that day," he recalls, but Schmidt the coach is a different proposition and he wants his charges to embrace expectation this spring.

"Expectation is good," he says. "I wouldn't be a fan of being the underdog, I think sometimes you can become too comfortable with the underdog tag. I think, at Leinster, there was a mindshift where they became comfortable with being favourites and it almost gave them more desire to make sure expectations were met."

The 'fan' is now centre stage for this year's tournament and, sitting in a quiet corner of the Clyde Court hotel, just a stone's throw from the gleaming Lansdowne Road, the New Zealander is clearly a man in demand. His phone buzzes impatiently and is ignored throughout the interview, while three different people politely interrupt for a word with the Ireland coach.

EXPLAIN

Later in the day, he will name the 44-man squad for Saturday's Wolfhounds game and the tournament as a whole. Then, when we are done, he is off to phone the players who didn't make the cut to explain his decisions before a succession of meetings that will last long into the evening.

There is a real sense that it is all go for Schmidt, whose profile has been raised by his ascension to the job from Leinster; he has two Late Late Show appearances to his name now and his every word is gold to the media.

Unprecedented success at Leinster guaranteed some breathing space for the first year of his job of raising Ireland from the nadir of last year's injury-fest and our worst Six Nations finish since the turn of the century.

Beating the All Blacks would have extended that honeymoon period right through to the World Cup and beyond, and the way Schmidt goes through the final minutes of that fateful day in November you can tell he has watched it again more than a few times.

It would be no surprise to hear him say he wakes up with a start every morning with Dane Coles' off-load to Ryan Crotty running through his mind. He has described it as a "recurring nightmare".

While the rest of the country gathered for the last of the Christmas parties and headed home for the festive period, the players came together to address any hangover from that day in November. How they react is crucial to the success of the next eight weeks and the oft-mentioned momentum will become a factor.

"I think momentum gives confidence. Confidence means that you don't need to work too hard to find solutions, you're just confident in what you're doing," Schmidt says of the need to generate some positive energy in the opening six days when Ireland face Scotland and Wales at home.

"One of the things with Wales is that, I don't think they try and do anything too fancy, they just do things with a degree of power. they put a lot of pressure on the set-piece and I think they're pretty cute in the way they do it – and they got massively rewarded by the referee in the last game against England," he says.

FRUSTRATION

"There was a lot of frustration in the England camp after and I remember Graham Rowntree expressing those frustrations. But, those same guys do it year in, year out and manage to get it done effectively.

"Those two games are going to be incredibly tough, but if we get that momentum, we would then have confidence in what we are doing. We wouldn't try anything too difficult, because, again, you don't have that much time together, so you want to make the best of what you have got; doing the simple things really well, I think, is what wins the Six Nations."

The performance against New Zealand had many in the chattering classes talking excitedly of Grand Slams and, of course, if the team can replicate that intensity they will be hard to stop.

But with just two clean sweeps in 130 years of competition, only the most delirious of punters would be rushing to the bookies with their €20 and putting it on a Grand Slam.

As early as June, Schmidt was pleading caution and warning that success would not come overnight and his Ireland remains a work in progress.

So, how will he gauge success in the next five games?

"Success, personally? There would be a number of performance indicators that would dictate how successful we are in our performance," he responds. "But, ultimately, it is a results business and if we could get a top-three finish, I think that that would be a success.

"We have two incredibly tough away games and we start with two tough home games. It wasn't so long ago that Scotland came to Croke Park and won the game – last year they were 8-0 down, but still had the resilience and ability to be in the match, even when they were being dominated.

"So, right from the start you have got to go out and make sure you get that one, because if you lose that, you're going to have to win the other four and there are some really good teams in there."

The lessons of the endgame in November will have to be learned and, according to the players, much of the focus of the Christmas review-session was around the mental side of the game.

When he reflects on those last two minutes Schmidt sees a lot of good, but when Nigel Owens blew that whistle to harshly penalise Jack McGrath for going off his feet, it was all downhill.

"We did panic a little bit in that we didn't get well positioned and we could have done that better," the coach recalls.

ATHLETES

"The mental part of the game, I'd have always have been a pretty big fan of getting that organised because if you look at the physical athletes playing the game, there's often not that much between them.

"If you look at Jamie Heaslip versus Louis Picamoles, well Picamoles is going to beat him all the time because he is physically bigger, isn't he? Well, not necessarily because Jamie is a smart player and he does other things that Picamoles doesn't do.

"So the team who is better prepared physically and mentally can maybe get one over the other. Being prepared mentally and knowing your role, trying to automate as much of what you do on the field, is going to be an advantage."

The other important factor that the New Zealand loss emphasised was the importance of the squad to winning big Test matches. Ireland used 50 players in 2013, but when it came down to it, it was New Zealand's bench who made the more telling impact when they were needed.

"What was most clear in that final autumn Test is that it is not about 15 guys winning a Test match anymore," Schmidt explains.

"I think if the same 15 (Kiwis) had played through to the conclusion of that game, it would have been tougher for the All Blacks to get back into it and, when you look at that final phase of play, the key guys who made the ground were Beauden Barrett, Liam Messam, whose angled run got them close to the line, and Ryan Crotty, who finished it very well.

"That was a really good example of the need for 23 players to be ready – and we know that if it is 23 then you need 30; you need two for each position, because somebody's going to get a ding at some stage.

"It is one of the things that happened to Wales last year, they got a few dings, but the guys who came in did very well, like Justin Tipuric in the last game (against England). He only got the opportunity because someone else had been injured, they had Adam Jones back after he had been injured, so you get that ebb and flow of availability and it is about working around availability really."

DEPTH

Whether the Six Nations is about developing that depth remains to be seen and Schmidt admits that he is in a "needs-must" situation in the coming weeks.

And, while he looks to the future and 2015, there will be much made of the past in the coming weeks and Brian O'Driscoll's last lap in green.

Health and selection permitting, the curtain on the greatest Irish Test career of them all will come down in Paris, the scene of the former captain's finest 80 minutes.

It will be a big deal no matter what, but after the Lions used the 35-year-old's impending retirement as a motivational factor before the second Test defeat to Australia, Schmidt has no plans to do the same.

"I don't think he'd want it addressed and I don't think we'll plan to address it at all. If the players make a decision that he runs out first, I think that would be brilliant, if he is fit and if he is selected," he says.

"The thing I have found about Brian is that he takes nothing for granted and it is one of the best things you can do, because if you take nothing for granted, you always prepare yourself as best you can and you make the decision for whoever is selecting the team, and he tends to do that very well.

"It's nice that he has got a run of games, he was underdone in the autumn and, to be honest, I knew that playing against Samoa and Australia, he was still working his way back to fitness, but I thought he was super against the All Blacks.

"I thought he played really well and I felt massively sorry for him that when he left the field it was 22-10, and one of the things that he was massively keen to achieve slipped away without him having any influence on it at that stage.

EMOTIONS

"I might be a little bit conscious of it, but if you watch the Argentina game against Australia where Felipe Contepomi was playing his last game, I just thought emotionally the Argentinians might have distracted themselves a little bit, they were too emotionally up for the game and maybe missed their accuracy; it is about getting that balance."

Balance is a central theme that will follow through the next eight weeks as the Ireland coach enters his first Six Nations managing his players, the expectations of a nation and all of the other things that come with the job.

The New Zealand result may haunt him, but the performance engendered renewed hope in the national team.

A year ago the Championship was something to be enjoyed, but now it is serious business.

Irish Independent

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