New era dawns for Irish rugby as Schmidt takes charge
Fitting sense of occasion to mark the onset of the Joe Schmidt era
Jamie Heaslip, Brian O’Driscoll and Rory Best among the rest of the Irish squad at the Aviva Stadium on Friday. Photogrtaph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
A new day dawns for Irish rugby. Fittingly, a 40,000-plus crowd and a tea-time kick-off under lights gives this opener to the Joe Schmidt era a sense of occasion which wasn’t there for a near half-empty Aviva and a 2.30 kick-off for Ireland’s hard fought 20-10 win when the sides last met three seasons ago.
All of this should help Ireland, and the spectacle as a whole. Steve Walsh is also a good referee, even if four defeats in six games under his no nonsense command means Ireland may not always appreciate this. But he has empathy for the game, he likes to let it flow, and penalty counts tend not to be high under his watch.
Admittedly, both sides are coming into this relatively cold and neither are at full-strength, with Samoa’s injured quintet – including the mountainous Toulouse tighthead Census Johnston – perhaps leaving the visitors relatively more weakened.
Nonetheless, the tourists bring eight of the starting line-up that accounted for Wales in the Millennium Stadium a year ago, along with five of that bench. Ten of their starting XV, and 17 of their match-day 23, are European based professionals, along with five more from the New Zealand provincial scene and Japanese rugby.
They retain the exceptional running threat of scrumhalf Kahn Fotuali’i, who leads the side, and the creative playmaking of Tusi Pisi. Irish defensive coach Les Kiss yesterday highlighted the running balance of Sale’s Johnny Leota and Northampton’s George Pisi in midfield, and pace out wide. They will test the Irish defence, as the last time Samoa failed to score a try was 25 games ago, in 2009.
For sure, the other factor in high ticket sales is the prospect of this being the start of Brian O’Driscoll’s last hurrah. His intuitive midfield partnership with Gordon D’Arcy will be having its 51st Test outing together, thereby equalling the record of New Zealand’s Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith.
O’Driscoll, with just one game under his belt since June against Cardiff six weeks ago, sat out yesterday’s captain’s run, as did Seán O’Brien. As Kiss, noted, O’Driscoll knows his own body pretty well at this stage and resting up after a fortnight’s full-on training makes sense.
Playing all three looks a tall order but if any 34-year-old man on the planet could manage this trick, or hat-trick, then it’s probably the great one.
There is the risk of scattered showers to dampen spirits and, perhaps, some positive intentions, but in some respects this may not be a disaster, not least as Samoa would not appear to have the potent scrum which has been a bedrock of their wins over Wales, Italy and Scotland in the last 12 months. With their innate flair, a less structured game should suit them more.
From an island which provides more professional rugby players per head of population than anywhere else on the planet, Samoa will also bring their customary physicality and passion in the week Peter ‘Fats’ Fatiolofa passed away, not to mention a yearning desire to win the most prestigious fixture of their tour. Victory here will elevate them from an all-time high of seventh in the IRB rankings to a dizzying fifth, if France and Wales lose to New Zealand and South Africa.
Currently eighth, Ireland could supplant Samoa by winning today. “We don’t talk in terms of saying we need to win and we want to win, we understand that that sits there,” said Kiss. “When it’s Test match rugby, I think that’s a given. It sits there in a place, that in their heart of hearts, each individual who sits there in their rooms before walking to the bus to go to the game, even two weeks out from the Test match, there is nothing more important than getting that win. But we have to make sure that the win is a result of us doing the things that we have said we’d do.”
This, he added, meant applying pressure with and without the ball, and he emphasised a strong start long before a strong bench might come into play.
Building a lead initially through a relatively structured game, recycling possession and regaining it through Conor Murray’s kicking and the aerial skills of the outside three, and, if necessary, three-pointers to begin with, may be the way to go.
For sure though, a team of Joe Schmidt’s is bound to play with ambition and, hopefully, the kind of precision he demands, with a few well-rehearsed strike moves and a well-drilled shape in attack as well as defence. This is going to be very interesting, and it’s only a taster for the next two years.
Let the new day dawn.