Schmidt’s goal of Ireland playing with high-precision under maximum pressure has a deadline
Dan Tuohy (left) and Devin Toner (centre) hard at work at Ireland’s squad session at Carton House in Co Kildare. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Sitting here in Beirut as a guest with Trócaire, the Aviva Stadium and Saturday’s international against Samoa appear a million miles away. But even here in a war-torn climate of refugees and religious discord, sport is everywhere.
Last Tuesday in Amman, Jordan, I managed to catch Juventus entertaining Real Madrid surrounded by countless smoking arghilas, the Jordanian waterpipes.
Life goes on and from what I’ve seen this week, thankfully so too does sport! So how will Joe Schmidt prevent the fur-lined mousetrap snapping shut on his transition from province to country?
Ranked above Ireland, Samoa have many obvious dangermen in their squad; they are stacked with top level players, who will provide the most physical test one could imagine on a Saturday afternoon.
Their physical centres will love the Paddy Jackson channel.
Although he has had far less pitch-time I’m not convinced Ian Madigan is third-choice Ireland outhalf.
To many, Schmidt’s arrival in green is a dream come true but as American author Napoleon Hill put it: “A goal is a dream with a deadline”.
With just 22 games remaining until our opening match in the RWC 2015, Schmidt has the following mountains to climb:
He must win matches in order to build confidence in his systems. Clearly his Leinster brethren are clued into his systems and his zero tolerance attention to detail. But if he loses matches the other provincial players may grow impatient.
Next, his team must perform, especially in the Six Nations, to secure much needed finances, sponsors and bums on seats. Last year Ireland came in behind Wales, England, Scotland and Italy and bizarrely, ahead of France.
The “beast” will not tolerate a repeat this season. Hence his biggest challenge will be achieving all this while developing international players for the RWC – no easy task in 22 matches!
For instance, it looks like Madigan will not start the next three internationals, leaving 19 games for Schmidt to find his number two outhalf!
Traditionally, the provincial set-up facilitated the above but now, taking Jimmy Gopperth and Zane Kirchner’s threat to Madigan and possibly Rob Kearney as an example, Schmidt has a political job on his hands.
In this vein, he has to ensure that BJ Botha doesn’t stunt Stephen Archer’s progression – politics, at its most delicate.
I’m especially delighted about Jack McGrath’s selection for Saturday’s Test; it is an early indication that Schmidt will drip-feed young tyros of his ilk into the international fray, where he will be supported by experience, in order to maintain the best team cohesion.
Working his socks off
Behind him in the scrum will most likely be Devin Toner (with Mike McCarthy behind the tighthead). Toner appears to have grown into his 6ft 10in frame and, along with improving technically in all aspects, he has been working his socks off.
I even like his penalty count at the breakdown, a la Malcolm O’Kelly.
It offers an insight into his work-rate and highlights especially his early arrival at the coal face. He’s not the best ball-carrier but is adding some great fringe defensive hits, and has developed beautiful offloads.
His possible combining with Paul O’Connell could make for a potentially interesting secondrow.
Openside at this level is a royal pain as it locks you down to very specific roles, which is fine if that’s your style, so I’m especially interested in Chris Henry’s performance and would love to see Seán O’Brien’s entry at blindside with one eye to the All Blacks.
This would be my starting backrow. O’Brien has been in ridiculously brilliant form thus far and is an obvious equal to Richie McCaw but Henry is no slouch either and the Irish backline will need O’Brien’s ball-carrying much further outfield; a luxury the six jersey affords.
Much to discuss
I pored over England versus Australia last Saturday – leaving much to discuss next week – but I yearn to see Iain Henderson in the role of Courtney Lawes and was so looking forward to some role from him this autumn.
In his absence, I look around at the many, many wonderful players Ireland have at their disposal. For too long they were underutilised, or worse were not playing off the same hymn sheet.
Schmidt will have zero tolerance for this and will quickly jettison those not conforming to his anal attention to detail.
In the search for an ignition tomorrow I’m drawn to England’s Mike Brown, who has the ability from fullback to create momentum, especially when the golden Wallaby tide flowed against England.
How did he manage this and who will do the same in green? Rob Kearney has vast amounts of talent and having negotiated many hurdles I can’t wait to see if can he ignite the Irish flow these coming weeks with pacey, power-counters creating space and opportunities that keep the ball flowing while energising his team-mates.
So what to hope for tomorrow? Schmidt’s style of coaching requires huge levels of precision, which is hard to replicate in training, especially with under strength training numbers. But I hope to see a fully committed and totally understood attacking concept working under horrific Samoan pressure.
This is a tough ask in game one, but by blending the power and pace of our four provinces with McGrath driving from the front and Kearney driving from the back, it is achievable.
No mousetraps, please!