Baptism of fire looming for Schmidt
New Irish coach expresses concerns over Sexton’s workload and implications for others tempted by Top 14
Head coach Joe Schmidt address the Ireland rugby squad during their training session at Carton House in Co Kildare yesterday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt addressing a press conference at the Ireland rugby squad’s Carton House base in Co Kildare yesterday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
As an indicator of the intensity of the two-day get-together with an extended Ireland squad in Carton House, the recently-installed Ireland head coach had almost lost his voice. As he hoarsely admitted, Joe Schmidt is a little out of practice at this coaching lark.
We can take it therefore, for his first on-field sessions since signing off with Leinster, Schmidt was in full voice, and the players have been taken aback by Schmidt’s presence, precision and attention to detail.
The breakdown area, and the work each and every one of them had done there to date in their provincial games, received the most attention.
Adapting to less day-to-day involvement, and a schedule curtailed from up to 33 games per season to 10, and all of them cup finals, is one issue, not least with a Guinness Series against Samoa, Australia and New Zealand starting in seven weeks.
Then there is Jonny Sexton having played seven games (five from the start) in six weeks for Racing Metro, although it was decidedly helpful Sexton was again in attendance.
Sexton’s game time is also a concern in the context of Racing’s acute interest in Seán O’Brien, and Jamie Heaslip also being out of contract at the end of the season.
“He’s enjoyed his seven games in six weeks,” noted Schmidt in welcoming Sexton into this camp and, he hopes, two weeks out from the Samoan game, albeit with the rider: “I haven’t enjoyed the fact he has played seven games in six weeks, to be honest.”
Flanked by defence coach Les Kiss and new forwards coach John Plumtree, Schmidt added: “They are getting great value out of him (Sexton), not just in minutes played but his kicking has been really consistent.
“He’s shown his attacking prowess and his decision-making is something that makes him, I think, a superb player.
“He is also good at gelling a group together, although that has been a little bit more difficult with the language, but he is really positive.”
Clearly concerned at the heightened threat from the Top 14, Schmidt also observed: “For Jamie Heaslip, Seán O’Brien and those sort of players, with the amount of collisions they are involved in, in a game, would they benefit from seven games in six weeks? Absolutely not.
“In the end the club they were at wouldn’t benefit either because they would end up breaking them if they used them to that degree.
“Certainly it wouldn’t benefit us. It would be a concern for us if they are over-utilised in that matter. If they can be kept in the country that is a massive advantage for us.”
As when he was at Leinster, he will not be involved in the negotiations.
“The wheels are in motion but while some people may feel those wheels need to be greased a little bit, sometimes it’s not from the IRFU end that things stall. I know on some occasions that’s been a sticking point.”
Sexton’s well-being is of heightened concern given Ian Madigan has not started one game at outhalf this season, an unthinkable scenario at the end of last season.
Schmidt attributed this to Leinster’s diminished resources in the back three, and expects him to have a run at “10” in the next week or two.
Madigan is expected to play at outhalf against Cardiff Blues at the RDS on Friday, but if Matt O’Connor subsequently prefers Jimmy Gopperth for the Munster derby and their opening Heineken Cup games, that will be Madigan’s only start in the position leading into the November Tests.
Hardly ideal for Madigan, or Schmidt.
Noting Paddy Jackson had a tough day at the office against Glasgow a fortnight ago, against Connacht last Friday “the longer the game went the more it seemed he had the ball on a string.”
Ireland’s November opponents are all ranked ahead of them, and as Samoa’s other games that month are against the French Barbarians and Georgia, Schmidt ventured:
“I don’t think you have to be Einstein to figure out which game they’ll target.
“We know that’s going to be an incredibly tough fixture, but I think it’s going to be a super fixture because they’re going to try to open the game up, without a doubt. We’re going to try to combat that and do what we want to do.”
While Australia conceded 150-odd points in four defeats, “they were against the Lions, twice, the All Blacks and South Africa, ” said Schmidt. “It’s not like they’ve had it easy and one of the ways to get confidence back is to get away as a group on tour and really build through that.
“So the Wallabies, I’ve no doubt they’ll be very tough.
“And then we’ve . . . what are they called?” joked Schmidt of his native team. “Those New Zealand guys.
“They have a really proud record against Ireland and that’s a record they feel a sense of responsibility to continue to protect and we’ve got a massive responsibility to try to make that as vulnerable as possible so that we can find where the weaknesses might be and try to get a result.”
“That block, we would be more focused on the front end than the back end of it, but we’d love to get a result at the back end of it.”
All but abound 1,000 of the 51,000 tickets for the New Zealand game have been sold, with sales for the Australia match over 45,000 and just under 20,000 for the opening game against Samoa.