Wednesday 21 February 2018

Tony Ward: Forget style, any sort of win will do for Schmidt

Coach may have to park expansive game plan to clear tricky first hurdle

Paul O’Connell takes part in the captain’s run yesterday ahead of the game against Samoa today
Paul O’Connell takes part in the captain’s run yesterday ahead of the game against Samoa today
Joe Schmidt makes a point to the players
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

A small, relatively innocuous comment made by new forwards coach John Plumtree tickled the cockles of my heart during the week.

"I'm really excited ahead of Samoa and I probably won't be able to sleep a wink on Friday night," said Plumtree.

Well hopefully our New Zealand- born former Natal head coach has had a restful night but, either way, this statement smacked not just of a man on a mission but of a management at one with its team.

This is the dawning of a new age for Irish rugby and this is a challenging first game for Joe Schmidt and his cohorts.

Make no mistake, a team that has beaten three of the Six Nations – Wales, Italy and Scotland – in the last 12 months and is ranked one place ahead of us (seventh) in the IRB table deserves respect.

Ever since they burst onto the scene when shocking Wales in Cardiff at the 1991 World Cup (before bowing out to Scotland in the quarter-final), Samoa have been seen as a significant threat.

There is still so much more the big southern hemisphere three could do to develop the game even further in the rugby-mad Pacific islands (Samoa, Fiji and Tonga), but the Samoans are making a fair fist of paddling their own canoe, given the odds stacked so heavily against them.


Trawl down the squad named for this month-long tour (with today's game the focal point, given that Ireland are their only tier one opposition) and it makes for pretty impressive reading, with 11 of the 30 plying their trade in France, nine in the English Premiership, five in New Zealand, two in Japan and one in Wales.

That leaves just two – uncapped fly-half Patrick Fa'apale and six times capped full-back Fa'atonia Autagavaia – the lone home-based representatives.

And to the squad that finished second to the Springboks in the quadrangular tournament held in South Africa in June, Stephen Betham has added Northampton Saints duo Kahn Fotuali'i and George Pisi as well as Leicester Tigers prop Logovi'i Mulipola in addition to the highly rated Wellington Hurricanes flanker Faifili Levave.

Put simply, this is as strong a squad (with the possible exception of Alesana Tuilagi) that Betham could muster, although the tourists have been weakened for today's game by late defections in Census Johnston, Maurice Fa'asavalu, Gavin Williams, David Lemi and particularly line-out specialist Dan Leo.

To beat four of the Six Nations in 12 months would represent some achievement, confirm their ranking and provide the ideal springboard as preparation for England 2015 gets under way in earnest.

Their upcoming games against the French Barbarians and Georgia pale into insignificance when measured against the prize on offer at the Aviva Stadium this afternoon.

With that backdrop is it any wonder this Irish management is hinting at insomnia of sorts?

By contrast, our record in 2013 reads three wins (over Wales, the USA and Canada), three defeats (to England, Italy and Scotland) plus an honourable draw away to France – hardly the type of run to have the buoyed-up Samoans trembling ahead of today's showdown.

But much more than that is the backdrop to the team in green that takes the field today.

This is Schmidt's first game as Ireland coach and goodwill abounds. He will be given time, although I'm not too sure how much.

For that reason, and much though my wish is for a try-fest, on this occasion needs must and that need is for a win. I won't go so far as suggesting that winning ugly is acceptable, but certainly a win of substance should represent the bottom-line return.

And by substance I mean a display by a team with a sense of purpose. I love the way Schmidt goes about his business but this is a level up, with far less time or space in which to operate. So he is on a learning curve that necessitates patience all round.

Samoa are not here to make up the numbers. This is a squad well capable of turning Ireland over unless we are on top of our game and given that neither side has played since June (in Ireland's case, more like March in Rome) this is a journey into the unknown in a match sure to be riddled with nerves early on.

Schmidt has selected a match-day squad underpinned by common sense. Despite the obvious temptation to go out with all guns blazing with a first-choice XV, he has opted instead for a measured selection, particularly up front.

Built into that is a powerful bench, with Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Paul O'Connell and Sean O'Brien ready to be unleashed when the going gets particularly tough from the hour mark on.

The backline – with the exception of Johnny Sexton – is the strongest unit available.

There is still little to choose between Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan so this is an opportunity for either one to make his mark, with the Ulsterman in pole position (based on greater game time for his province) to state his case.

Up front, opportunity knocks for loosehead Jack McGrath and openside Chris Henry, while for second-rows Devin Toner (particularly) and Mike McCarthy, this is their day to lay a marker.

Should it go belly up, there is enough in reserve to change it mid-match.

Equally, there is the facility to change the team around appreciably ahead of the Wallabies clash next up.

All in all, it makes for a sensible selection.

Can this team present Schmidt, Plumtree, Les Kiss and the rest with an opening day win?

I believe they will but in a game in which the head coach may have to settle for the pragmatic ahead of the aesthetic.

Verdict: Ireland by 12 (26-14)

Irish Independent

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