Gerry Thornley: Joe Schmidt steps up to plan Ireland’s downfall

Kiwi’s presence in All Blacks camp is unnerving given his insider knowledge on Farrell’s Ireland which is encyclopedic

Watch a rerun of Ireland’s thrilling 29-20 win over the All Blacks in the Aviva Stadium last November on Sky Sports New Zealand and almost as remarkable as any of the tries scored by James Lowe, Ronan Kelleher and Caelan Doris was an observation by Tony Johnson.

The esteemed Kiwi commentator referred, almost matter-of-factly, to “this great rivalry between Ireland and New Zealand”.

Ye Gods. Did a New Zealand rugby commentator actually say that? Rewind, and sure enough he did. Such a comment would have seemed fanciful in the extreme for much of the first 111 years of the ‘rivalry’, such as it was.

Prior to the breakthrough Irish win in Chicago in 2016, the countries had played each other 28 times, with the All Blacks winning 27 times, and one draw in 1973, when Barry McGann had a touchline conversion to win the game after a late try by Tom Grace.

Aside from the latter, there had been a few other close shaves for the All Blacks, such as the wins by 6-5 and 10-6 in the old Lansdowne Road in 1963 and 1978, and the 24-21 victory in Carisbrook in 1992 when Vinny Cunningham’s two tries and one by Jim Staples had Ireland within striking distance of a shock win.

In the second Test of a three-Test series in 2012, entering the endgame Ireland were drawing 19-19, with the All Blacks reduced to 14 men by the sinbinning of Israel Dagg for taking out Rob Kearney, when their pack went for a big scrum.

They appeared to have secured a potential match-winning penalty around 40 metres out – and Johnny Sexton could have landed a kick from the car park that night – only for Nigel Owens to decree they had whipped the scrum. So, instead, the All Blacks went up the line and set up the match-winning drop goal for some bloke called Carter.

The problem, though, was usually what followed.

In 1992, a week after the aforementioned first Test, the All Blacks regrouped, made six changes and beat Ireland by a record 59-6 in Wellington. As for 2012, a week after that second Test in Christchurch, Declan Kidney summoned Paddy Wallace from his summer holidays to fill a midfield shortage, directly opposite Sonny Bill Williams.

The 60-0 defeat, aka the Hamilton Horror Show, prompted yet another tail-between-the-legs exit, a familiar departure through the tradesman’s entrance ever since the A/Development tour of 1997 which became dubbed the Arrested Development tour.

That seven-match tour generated much fanfare among the rugby-mad Kiwis, but after Ireland ‘A’ were beaten 69-16 by Northland in Whangarei and then 74-15 by the New Zealand Academy, TV coverage of the remaining five games was abandoned due to the lack of competitiveness.

Fast forward 25 years and bumping into Johnson yesterday he maintained that “yes, it is a great rivalry”. To that end, a large crowd is expected for this Wednesday’s tour opener against the Maoris in Hamilton and Saturday’s first Test in Eden Park is a 47,000-plus sell-out for the first time since well before the 2019 World Cup.

Riccardo Ball, a presenter with SENZ Radio, reckons that whereas most mid-year visits by northern hemisphere sides are relatively low-key affairs Ireland’s expedition is the biggest rugby tour in New Zealand since the British & Irish Lions visited in 2017.

Anticipation is acute, in part due to the heightened rivalry, and no doubt also due to next Saturday’s game being the first All Blacks match on home soil since August last year. Then, Covid fears and public indifference contributed to Eden Park being less than half full for their Bledisloe Cup game against the Wallabies.

With the All Blacks not setting foot in Auckland until this week, the latter stages of last week were focused more on New Zealand playing Tonga in a rugby league international. The Tongan squad were in our hotel in downtown Auckland, and their presence was made clear both by a red car parked outside which decorated with ghetto blasters atop its roof, and on Thursday led a deafening motorbike convoy around the block.

The Irish squad have moved around town largely unbothered, although they have relayed messages from locals of impending defeats coming their way, but equally the tongue-in-cheek billboard campaign by TAG mocking the tourists’ chances is actually a barometer of the new-found respect.

TAB even clipped Ireland’s odds of winning the First Test from NZ$4 to NZ$3.60 in light of the Covid outbreak which has struck head coach Ian Foster and his assistants John Plumtree and Scott McLeod. Except that this has meant Joe Schmidt, whose involvement had always been considered likely in any case by the Irish management, has officially become part of the All Blacks’ preparations this week.

No man, ironically, did more to elevate the rivalry to greatness than the Kiwi. Indeed, the starting point was surely that heartbreaking near miss in 2013 in Schmidt’s third match in charge, before he helped to mastermind that landmark victory in Chicago three years later and the first win on home soil in November 2019.

As he feared in the immediate aftermath of the win in Chicago, each time Ireland poked the bear, first leading to a vengeful mission to Dublin a fortnight later and finally that World Cup quarter-final filleting in his last match at the helm in Tokyo.

It could well be that Ireland’s superb win in Dublin last November has again succeeded in poking the bear, and Schmidt’s confirmed presence in camp this week is profoundly unnerving given his insider knowledge on Johnny Sexton, Andy Farrell et al, which is encyclopedic.

You’d wonder if Schmidt himself feels in any way awkward. You wonder too how cohesive is the ever expanding and now ever-changing All Blacks’ coaching dynamic. The upheavals could definitely disrupt their preparations.

More likely, akin to Ian Costello assuming the reigns in tandem with his academy assistant Andy Kiriacou as Johann van Graan et al were in isolation when Munster’s patchwork side beat Wasps last December, it will galvanise and inspire them.

Schmidt will be actively plotting Ireland’s downfall this week and again in the remainder of this series. It’s ridiculous really yet, now that it has come to pass, somehow it almost seems like fate. The plot has thickened alright.

gerry.thornley@irishtimes.com