Joe Schmidt yesterday said categorically that no deal has been done to take him back to New Zealand at the end of next season and that he has still to decide whether to remain as Ireland head coach until the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
On reports that a deal has been agreed with the Otago-based Highlanders, Schmidt told Irish daily newspaper reporters in the squad's Johannesburg base yesterday: "No, that was on the back of one conversation that Roger Clark (Highlanders CE)) had with me and I have made absolutely no commitment to the Highlanders. I've made no commitment to anyone other than my current employers."
Schmidt could not have been any clearer than that. For sure, the Highlanders might like to have him back in New Zealand, just as the IRFU would like him to sign an extension beyond the end of next season.
According to well-placed sources, Schmidt has already turned down overtures from the Auckland Blues before.
Pretty much every time the NZRU CEO Steve Tew happens to be in the same country, he sounds Schmidt out. Schmidt may well go yet, or he may stay, but in all probability he himself has still to decide.
Adding that his "very light conversation with Rog [Clarke]" is a normal occurrence for coaches, Schmidt noted how well current Highlanders' coaches Tony Brown and Scott McCleod were doing and added: "I don't want to go in and muck them up anyway, they look like they're doing just fine anyway by themselves."
Nor was this a distraction.
“I haven’t even given it any thought to be honest, because the conversation was just before the tour and I’ve very much got my hands full right now.”
Schmidt has picked a team for the second Test which has both next Saturday and the longer term in mind, specifically the next World Cup.
Tadhg Furlong, the uncapped Quinn Roux, Rhys Ruddock, Stuart Olding and Craig Gilroy are called up, while Iain Henderson switches to blindside flanker.
There are two more potential debutants, namely Ulster’s New Zealand-reared backrower
(whose grandfather hails from Kerry) and the Connacht fullback Tiernan O’Halloran, while
and Donnacha Ryan are also added to the bench. It means the only members of the 32-man squad not to see any action so far will be
, which is a pity.
However, this should not be inferred as a sign that Schmidt will remain as the Irish head coach until Japan 2019.
“Whatever happens, this is the full focus of my attention and the one thing I want to do no matter what happens in the future is to leave Irish rugby in as good a shape as possible.
“If that’s this time next year or if it’s in three years time, I’m not sure.”
“All I know is that this is something we’ve got to try to do and we’re investing a lot of time and effort into into trying to be as good with a broader group as we possibly can be,” said Schmidt. “This was always a chance for us to broaden that and no matter what happens, the coaching group as it is, are in great shape. I have less and less to do with it.”
From Rory Best through Devin Toner, Jamie Heaslip, Conor Murray and Paddy Jackson to Jared Payne, Schmidt has still retained the spine of the team. This was clearly the strategy from the off, for Schmidt intimated that had Johnny Sexton been fit, Paddy Jackson would probably have started this second Test anyway.
It's a gamble, for sure, to pitch Furlong into his first start and hand Roux his debut, especially on the same side of the scrum, but this doesn't mean time is up for oul man river Mike Ross. "It's very much a squad game. For one person to be given a bit of a rest, it's hardly a shift of an era."
Much of the selection strategy for this tour emanates from what happened to an injury-ravaged Ireland at the World Cup when, in addition to Payne, Ireland lost Sexton, Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien after the win over France.
While “fully accepting the criticism of the World Cup” even though “losing our five most influential players” and “taking nothing away from an outstanding Argentinian performance, Schmidt said: “But I don’t want to go there again. I don’t want the team to be caught in a situation where we’ve got players who haven’t been in that white -hot environment. And it’s throwing out the opportunity, dovetailed with the challenge, [to find out] can they live there? And if they can that’s got to be good for us.”
Furthermore, a three-Test June tour offers more of an opportunity than the Six Nations, or perhaps even a November series at home, to develop squad depth.
“I think so. The Six Nations to me is what we live or die by, and I think this did afford us the opportunity. I’m not sure that too many people had high expectations last week. I think they will probably believe, and it could well happen, that world rugby will rebalance itself and the Springbok – the powerhouse that they are – will re-establish that dominance they tend to have at Ellis Park and in this country on Saturday.”
“So I think for us it does afford us the opportunity but it also issues a challenge to those individuals who’ve been given the opportunity this week,” concluded the Ireland coach.