Gerry Thornley: Schmidt’s sad final chapter tarnishes his reign but legacy will endure
The win over the All Blacks in 2018 can now be seen for what it is: this side’s Icarus moment
Nobody bar the ultimate winners, or in the case of Irish rugby, Brian O’Driscoll, gets to pen their own exit, and it’s particularly ironic that in extending his stay for four more years primarily to erase the bitter taste of the World Cup quarter-final defeat by Argentina, the final game of Joe Schmidt’s reign should end with an even more emphatic defeat by the country of his birth.
Having watched them pretty much all his life, the All Blacks are the team Schmidt knows best and it was his assiduous attention to detail which did so much to enable Ireland to go toe-to-toe with the sport’s greatest team over four games in a row.
That was completely uncharted territory. Recall that the previous meeting had ended 60-0. After the heartbreak of the defeat in overtime in 2013, the win in Chicago removed the biggest shadow which hung over Irish rugby for 123 years. It was our stigma. Our Achilles heel. Our source, even, of ridicule. We could never be taken seriously as a rugby nation (which, of course, we’re not really if you look at its place in the sporting pecking order), and least of all in New Zealand, where, by comparison, there is really only one sport.
Schmidt’s Ireland helped Irish fans to celebrate, and to dream again, on many occasions. There may have been more talented Irish teams, but none were as successful as this one. That’s why the sense of anti-climax about 2019 and specifically this World Cup is all the sharper.
Schmidt’s arrival at Leinster, and then Ireland, was well timed. Both had made their breakthrough achievements in 2009 with that Grand Slam and Heineken Cup. Two more, memorable, European Cup triumphs followed under Schmidt at Leinster, as well as Pro 12 and Challenge Cup double.
With Ireland, successive Six Nations titles for the first time since the 1940s, lest we forget, were backed up by a first win in South Africa, a first series win in Australia since 1979, a second Grand Slam since the 40s and those sole two wins in 33 meetings with the All Blacks.
Having poked the bear once in Chicago, and felt the full wrath of the All Blacks’ fury two weeks later in Dublin, to beat them again at the Aviva stadium was arguably a bigger achievement. But that, of course, poked the bear a second time.
Cue Saturday, and the All Blacks put Ireland back in their box emphatically. And in all the analysis of Ireland’s performance, the sheer brilliance of the All Blacks’ display has to be taken into account.
Nonetheless, as the head coach, Schmidt has to accept some of the blame for an underachieving year which culminated in a World Cup featuring defeats by Japan and a record tournament loss in last Saturday’s quarter-final.
Curiously, a good team has continued to play poorly in big games. Through it all Schmidt remained loyal, retaining a dozen of the starting line-up against the All Blacks last November for this quarter-final rematch.
Steve Hansen, who was withering in his unofficial anointment of Ian Foster ahead of Schmidt as his successor in the aftermath of their 46-14 win, set about recasting his team and their game, and come the quarter-final, picked a side on form. By contrast, Schmidt and his assistants now stand accused of remaining too loyal, although they weren’t helped by the crippling loss of Dan Leavy and Seán O’Brien.
Nor does Irish rugby have the playing pool of talent which other countries, notably New Zealand and England, possess. Rhys Ruddock was again puzzlingly underused, Bundee Aki was a significant loss, the form of Jordan Larmour and Andrew Conway was overlooked and Jean Kleyn was not a success, although that had no relevance to last Saturday. But options aplenty there weren’t, and Ruddock, Larmour and Conway would not have prevented Saturday’s rout.
The structured style had outstanding successes, but this also allowed the opposition – England, Japan and New Zealand most obviously – to dissect it and come up with ways of negating it. In response, Ireland’s game did not evolve sufficiently.
All of which highlights another curiosity. When Schmidt first took over a Leinster squad which had been sparked into a more professional and successful environment, he set about ensuring they would be the best passing team in Europe. He succeeded. Leinster were thrilling to watch and probably the best Irish provincial side ever.
The famous comeback over Northampton in 2011 and the filleting of Ulster in 2012 would not have been possible otherwise. Along the way with Ireland, for some reason Schmidt’s team became increasingly more prescriptive. It delivered until the end of last year, but history will undoubtedly show that the win over the All Blacks last November was this Irish team’s Icarus moment. It also helped to provoke the All Blacks into recasting themselves and inflict the lowest point of Schmidt’s reign on Saturday.
It tarnishes his reign, no doubt. Sadly, how you finish sticks freshest in the memory. As the final chapter, the deflating sense of disappointment is at its most acute. And there’ll be swift and brutal condemnation for the same, like the vast bulk of coaches and players who had given us the best of times over the previous five years. We’ll always be good at that.
But it should not destroy Schmidt’s and this team’s legacy. Anything but. This exit was every bit as deflating as so many before; Lens in 1999, beaten out the gate by France in 2003 and in France four years later, the crushing quarter-final defeats by Wales and Argentina, and again now, albeit these All Blacks were the best team Ireland have ever faced in a World Cup.
There’s been worse Irish World Cup campaigns. Trust me. And until this year anyway, the previous five and a half years were unlike anything Irish rugby has ever known.
That will never go away. It’s just a little more difficult to remember right now.