Saturday 17 March 2018

Treatment of Kidney a huge lesson for Schmidt

Kiwi riding crest of wave but results key to avoiding fate of predecessor

Joe Schmidt
Joe Schmidt
Paul O'Connell, Robbie Henshaw, Mike Ross and Declan Fitzpatrick look on during their Ireland team-mates go through their paces at Carton House. INPHO/BILLY STICKLAND
Conor George

Conor George

THE swell of goodwill that greeted Joe Schmidt's elevation to his position as Ireland head coach will offer him nourishment in the difficult weeks that lie ahead.

His four trophies in three years with Leinster demanded he be offered the opportunity to succeed the luckless Declan Kidney after Ireland's 2013 Six Nations imploded in such spectacular fashion.

Schmidt has earned his position. He has a reputation for being an honest broker, a coach who is selfless and who has succeeded in his career by dint of his hard work, his deep passion, his enduring commitment to rugby.

The clamorous approval of all within Irish rugby – as evidenced by the warmth of his welcome when attending a recent Munster game in Cork's Musgrave Park – highlights the depth of the support that greeted him on his appointment.

The IRFU were correct to cast their net wide during the interviewing process – both Les Kiss and Australia coach Ewen McKenzie were interviewed, while Jake White declined – but once Schmidt indicated his interest, there was only one credible candidate.

Schmidt should, however, be wary. Kidney's appointment in 2008 was also feted. He was the outstanding candidate and within 12 months of his appointment had led Ireland to their first Grand Slam title in 61 years.

But at the end of the Six Nations this year, there was a concentrated effort to get rid of Kidney.

For certain he stayed on in the position probably that one season too long, but he deserved better than the vitriol that rained down on him during his last campaign.


The treatment of Kidney should serve as a salutary lesson for Schmidt. He will also be able to draw from his own experiences from when there was an effort to force him out of Leinster just four games into his tenure, but even that experience pales in comparison to what awaits him.

His record as a coach is incredible at club level. But now he faces the ultimate test and trial by fire where the only criterion that will matter will be the most challenging of all – results.

In real terms, life as Schmidt knows it changes this week, for he will now live and die with the fate of his team and, as he will also learn, adulation can be fleeting.

In many respects, the New Zelander is already under some pressure because of his heavy reliance on personnel from Leinster. He was always likely to revert to the players he knows best, but as well as including a whopping 17 Leinster players, he has also seconded half his former team's coaching staff, with Richie Murphy and Greg Feek joining the Ireland staff for the forthcoming November Series.

Rugby in Ireland is partisan and Schmidt, like his immediate predecessor, will inevitably have to cope with disappointment and accommodate criticism.

Kidney was regularly hammered for having an alleged bias towards Munster and a similar stick could also be used to beat Schmidt should results start going against him.

However, the goodwill he has accumulated will win him time with Leinster supporters – but can the same be said of those from Ireland's other three provinces?

There have already been negative rumblings about the decision to omit promising talents such as Connacht's Kieran Marmion in favour of players who are either not seeing as much game time as the up-and-coming scrum-half or who are not showing the same form as the 21-year-old.

He's hugely unfortunate that Paul O'Connell's participation, from the start at least, is not certain as opting for the Munster second-row as captain would not only help unify the team, but would also help bridge the eternal divide that exists between the distinct sets of supporters.

If O'Connell does miss the Samoa game, it will be very difficult to revert to him for the captaincy later in the Series.

Circumstances may actually conspire to force Schmidt's hand when it comes to his selection for the Samoa game.

The coach will have to balance the need to begin his tenure on a winning note with safeguarding against losing any of his marquee players for the final game of the Series against New Zealand.

He must also find the right balance for his players between having them battle-hardened and rested.

Brian O'Driscoll, for example, has played just 73 minutes of rugby since the second Test for the Lions against Australia at the end of June.

It was confirmed yesterday that O'Driscoll is fit after his calf injury, but he's not expected to play for Leinster this weekend. He will be woefully short of match-practice when the Series starts, but would it be sensible to risk him against a hugely physical side like Samoa?

It's entirely logical to expect Schmidt to attempt to manage the energy of the squad for a very intensive Series by holding back some of his more precious resources for the Tests against Australia and, in particular, New Zealand.

To this end, the likes of Devin Toner, Jack McGrath, James Coughlan and Kevin McLaughlin might all expect to see action against Samoa.

Schmidt must be encouraged to mix things up, but he must do this knowing that the Irish public will expect a return of at least two victories from the three Tests. Ireland must expect to beat Samoa despite their higher ranking and, under the right circumstances, Australia are certainly beatable.

They are the games Ireland should expect to win. Anything less will be seen as a disappointment. There is, however, a caveat. If Schmidt can mastermind a first victory over the All Blacks, the results of the first two games will matter not a jot.

Irish Independent

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