Trevor Hogan: Schmidt must hit Ireland for six
Coach's analytical approach vital in helping overcome major challenges that lie ahead
Joe Schmidt is all about detail. This is clear in every aspect of his preparation, with all elements of the opposition intensely scrutinised. Ahead of the back-to-back games between Leinster and Clermont in 2011, photographs of the starting XV for the French side, with bullet points of their attributes, were pinned on the wall of the Leinster gym and the hallway leading into the video room.
Each day as we walked in for training, these pictures served as a reminder of the challenges that lay ahead, while also providing clear, specific targets on how to overcome them. The way to beat the opposition was ingrained into the mind of the squad – an approach central to Leinster coming out on top after the two games.
With Ireland, while the nature of the task Schmidt faces has changed, this clinical, analytical approach will be vital in helping to overcome the various challenges he faces. Here are six of those challenges he will be looking to address.
1 TIME CONSTRAINTS
Accuracy and knowledge of individual player roles are paramount in Schmidt's approach. The biggest obstacle, though, to implementing this, is time.
Just over two weeks to prepare for Samoa is a lot shorter than the months of pre-season available for preparation at provincial level. At Leinster, Schmidt had the relative comfort of spending hours repeating running lines and shape, particularly off set-pieces. Countless repetitions of patterns and structure would be walked through, both on the pitch and at the indoor gym at UCD.
The big challenge now is condensing the work required into a shorter period, while still getting the players fine-tuned for the patterns he will have pinpointed for Samoa, Australia and New Zealand. Against opposition of that standard, there is no time for experimentation.
2 CREATING A POTENT
The first 40 minutes of the victorious Six Nations clash with Wales in Cardiff last February were an indication of what the Irish players are capable of in terms of attack and accuracy of passing. The Welsh centre, Jonathan Davies, was left scratching his head in that opening half.
That attacking game has been infrequent in recent seasons. Now Schmidt will be looking to build on the high-tempo, incisive running game which saw Ireland blitz the Welsh. Hard, animated running lines – where every runner holds a defender – direct and aggressive carries, combined with carefully crafted plays, particularly off the line-out, characterised Schmidt's attacking strategy.
This is largely why there is almost unprecedented excitement with Schmidt's appointment, with fans giddy at the prospect of Ireland regularly playing in this manner.
A major challenge for Schmidt will be in securing a consistent level of performance from the team. To produce a high standard against Samoa, only to have it undone the following week against Australia, would invoke memories of Ireland's unpredictability over the last few seasons.
The win rate since August 2011 is just over 40pc. Compare that with the trademark consistency of Schmidt's teams, which has been ruthless week after week. If Ireland can achieve that in terms of mindset and performance, the momentum and results will follow.
4 HARNESSING FUNDAMENTALS
OF THE FOUR PROVINCES
The biggest strengths of the Irish provinces in Europe and the Pro12 is their hunger and intensity at the opposition breakdown. All four sides have a work rate and urgency to poach and get to the ruck first in a manner that is rarely matched by other teams in Europe.
Similarly the Irish provinces, already the masters of the choke tackle, have increasingly perfected the chop – a tackle trademarked by Welsh flanker Dan Lydiate, whereby the attacker is chopped down at his ankles. These aspects have resulted in sides – from Montpellier to Saracens – being unable to gain any attacking momentum against Irish teams, slowly breaking their will by disrupting their ball.
Schmidt places a massive emphasis on the breakdown and if he can transfer these provincial strengths on to the international stage, Ireland will be extremely difficult to beat.
5 RESTORING FORTRESS
Schmidt will be aware that restoring a strong home record is central to cementing Ireland's future success. The atmosphere recently at the new stadium has been disappointingly flat and this is reflected in the recent poor record of only one win in the last four matches there. It is vital to create a momentum of intensity and energy at our home ground and this group of games provides a real opportunity to do that.
The All Blacks game in particular could see a surge in enthusiasm that might launch a new relationship between the fans, players and the Dublin arena. Making our home venue a punishing place for opposition teams will be a priority.
6 PLAYER MANAGEMENT
A final challenge surrounds the management of players over the intensive three-week period. Already the loss of Donnacha Ryan is huge and there are further question marks over injuries to Paul O'Connell, Brian O'Driscoll, Sean O'Brien and Rory Best, while Racing Metro are reluctant to give Johnny Sexton a minute's rest.
Injuries and player fatigue are an inevitable part of modern rugby, but it complicates Schmidt's task further in that these players are all contenders for the captaincy, and at the very least will be key game managers on the pitch.
Schmidt's ability to manage any potential losses in these key positions – especially in line-out calling – will be crucial in Ireland getting positive results over the autumn. Given the demands of the next few weeks, opportunities will arise for Robbie Henshaw, Fergus McFadden, Devin Toner, Dan Tuohy, Mike McCarthy and Sean Cronin.