Ideal tour for Joe Schmidt as new green shoots appear
Tour to USA and Japan has helped to identify future leaders within the Irish squad
Joe Schmidt and members of the Irish squad in Japan. The successful tour has helped to blood fresh Irish talent. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
It’s 2.22pm. Kick-off is 18 minutes away but, for these Irish soldiers, the Test match began as soon as the 70-minute air-conditioned bus ride poured them into the stifling Ajinomoto stadium.
A raised index finger initiates breakdown drills before a throat-slitting motion abruptly changes tack. Schmidt temporarily cedes command to Simon Easterby, trotting over to Greg Feek and the tackle bags. He inches one bag into line, ever so slightly tilting another and, as the players arrive, demands ferocity.
Finger raised. Continuity drill. Schmidt is practically standing inside the ruck, his rasping voice alien to the dulcet tone microphones transmit post-match. A palm is raised to Ruddock, almost in apology, as the squad huddles around their blindside.
It’s 2.25pm. Manic moments subside as Schmidt walks off the grass, billowing his drenched purple shirt, stalling to eyeball dripping players as they stride towards shade.
To the former vice-principal this might just have been his dream tour.
No pressure except what he created. Time with the boys before they become men. Moulding clay into imposing statues.
Life lessons in control and release.
“The meetings and training can be very intense but you got to be able to switch off,” said Josh van der Flier, who knows nothing but the Schmidt era.
“Enda McNulty, the sports psychologist, spoke to me and a few others about being able to take your day off when it comes and being able to switch back into...”
It would have been torturous to spend a week in view of the most famous sky line on earth, a quick (choppy) ferry across the Hudson river to East Village paradise, without some R&R.
From wondrous Manhattan to secretive Tokyo and the self-imprisoned, squatting sumo rikishi, the players were exposed to a harsher world and their own future.
“First time in New York, first time in Japan – you could easily let it distract you because you have to enjoy it in your time off and then switch back into Test match mode,” van der Flier added. “The Tests have been tough.”
Three clean victories indicate success – 55-19 in Harrison, 50-22 in Shizuoka and 35-13 in a Tokyo suburb. Twenty-one tries, eight conceded. Eight new caps.
Enjoying down time cannot be easy in Schmidt’s world. Always watching for how the pack interacts, for leadership traits (Garry Ringrose, he said, has “got a great instinct for the game.”). From breakfast to dusk, the environment seemed intense, all-consuming. The provinces complain about returning players being mentally spent.
Nobody breaks ranks because everyone knows this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will probably end in glorious defeat at the 2019 World Cup.
But players need to breathe. You wonder if short-term gain will damage long- term survival for these hulking twenty-some-things. Eventually, contact sport takes more than it gives.
Ireland, this squad, are not oblivious to the importance of living like the rest of us whenever they can. Of course they are nothing like us, can’t be, because of their dedication to such a punishing cause.
Robbie Deans was the first New Zealander to guide Australia through a World Cup and Lions series. In 2014 he took a break from the elite rugby, moved with his wife Penny to the isolated Ota, three hours north of Tokyo, to coach Panasonic Wild Knights.
“Their capacity for work is unprecedented,” said Deans of Japanese people. “You have to kick them off the training field. But you need to be obsessed with both your passion and life outside the game. You have to have both. Look at the NFL, look at any professional sport, those that have a life outside the game thrive. Those who go back to the couch don’t.”
McNulty relays similar ideas to young Ireland players. Be obsessed with rugby but be obsessed about reality too. Leinster pre-season has already begun. They build them up for two weeks, then another break, before the 11-month season catches fire. It worked last year, in that the injury count decreased.
“I think at this stage now it’s more mental than physical,” said Cooney about coping with an injury-ravaged career that finally yielded international recognition last Saturday.
“So, I’ve really worked on my mental side, to be able to adapt to different circumstances and make sure I’m doing as much mental work as I can. I’m seeing someone in Galway to help me with that side of my game, I think it’s something I’ve developed through adversity, but it’s pretty important now.”
Ireland tourists have July off but Jack Conan – brilliantly playing all 240 minutes on tour with 230 ball-carrying metres, three tries and 29 primary tackles – knows Jordi Murphy and possibly Jamie Heaslip will have the jump on him for preseason matches in August. Imagine that head melter as you try to unwind on a beach.
Still, Conan, Leavy, van der Flier, Luke McGrath and Ringrose are on an upward trek towards officer class at Leinster.
“Some guys have really put their foot forward and other guys clearly have a bit more work to do,” said Schmidt in his final address until November. “It’s given us clarity around that. Rhys [Ruddock]did a fantastic job leading on the pitch but away from the pitch as well.
“It’s important to learn stuff like that. The depth of players is important but you also need depth of character. He really brought that to the job.”
Keith Earls was paid the same compliment.
But what will Schmidt say to Ruddock or Conan in November if Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony and Iain Henderson bring their Lions form and fitness home? What of Heaslip? How the hell do Leinster balance the presence of six international backrowers?
David Nucifora, the IRFU High Performance Director has offered a solution that only Cooney embraced of late.
“I think it was a bit of a no-brainer,” said the Gonzaga-educated scrumhalf of his move from Galway to Belfast. “Kieran [Marmion]is a great rugby player and I just saw when Ruan [Piennar] was leaving that it was an opportunity.”
“It was a difficult thing to do but for me it was just an opportunity,” Cooney explained. “I loved Connacht – I loved everything about it. My mum’s from Sligo. I had a background there but at the end of the day it’s head over heart.”
Anyway, problem positions were addressed on this tour. Marmion reacted excellently to McGrath’s performance in the first Japanese Test while Andrew Porter and John Ryan have fattened the tighthead stocks.
Maybe, come 2019, Schmidt’s Ireland will be able to cope with losing five leaders, unlike Cardiff in 2015 when Argentina progressed to the World Cup semi-final after the cruel removal of O’Mahony, Paul O’Connell, Jared Payne, O’Brien and Johnny Sexton.
“You never really can say. We can’t get Paulie back but there are a few other guys coming through. I’d like to think we are building depth,” said Schmidt.
He knows full well that they are. And now they know how he operates.