Joe Schmidt has distanced himself from last week's upheaval at Leinster which saw Matt O'Connor removed as head coach two years into his three year contract as Schmidt's replacement at the province.
Along with the IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora, the Irish coach was moved to call a press conference in which they publicly disagreed with O’Connor’s interpretation of the Union’s game management and the availability of Ireland’s frontline players.
However, on the eve of Ireland’s game against the Barbarians at Thomond Park tomorrow night, Schmidt stated: “I was as surprised as anyone. It’s not the IRFU’s decision, it’s purely a Leinster (Professional) Game Board decision. That’s the autonomy they have, and that’s the decision they made. So it’s totally independent of the IRFU.”
The Irish coach had been endeavouring to improve his relationship with O’Connor. “Those relationships are really important. Everybody who is having to share resources at stages is going to be probably contesting where and when those resources are best utilised. And that’s part of the continual feedback that exists with the IRFU and the player management that I think is something that the provinces recognise as well.”
“It’s certainly something that we were predicting continuing going forward and trying to be as positive as possible in that vein.”
As Leinster pursue a successor to O’Connor, Schmidt described himself as no more than an interested observer, “because in the end I’ll be working with that person and that person will have obviously a number of Irish international players. I think that’s something that, again that’s their process, and we’ll find out when that process has gone through its full cycle and we’ve got someone at the end of it.”
As regards Schmidt’s own contractual position with the IRFU – chief executive Philip Browne recently confirmed that they are looking to extend his tenure beyond his existing contract until the end of the 2015-16 season – the Irish coach was non-committal.
“To be honest, I don’t feel there’s too much panic and I don’t think the IRFU do either. It’s just that I think it’s a really busy time to be honest; we’re in camp and trying to finish off the season. I’m not going anywhere in June and that might give us a better window. May has been really busy with the amount of games to get to and players to track and preparations to do in order to get organised for this game, get the Emerging tourists organised and ready to go as well. I think it’s something that we will get to, but I can’t really comment on it.
“I don’t think that far ahead to be honest! I’ll just get this week done and then I’m looking forward to getting up to Belfast and watching the [Guinness Pro12] final. Once that’s done and I feel the season’s finished, then I turn my head to other things.
“It’s been busy across the board, even with associated things as well. I spent Sunday morning calling into De La Salle Palmerston, they have a special needs tag team there, and they were great fun. Even then you’re kind of distracted by what’s happening and even in the club game.”
Tomorrow's game is also notable for the return of Chris Henry in an Irish number seven jersey for the first time since the heart problems which forced his withdrawal from the win over South Africa last November and which sidelined him until the end of March.
“I think he’s been bubbling with enthusiasm and he’s demonstrated at the two trainings, and he’ll demonstrate that at the game again tomorrow night. He’s just a good quality person to have around as well, so I’m really looking forward to seeing him go again.
“He’s in try-scoring mode at the moment. He got one last week,” added Schmidt in reference to Henry’s try in Ulster’s Guinness Pro12 semi-final defeat to Glasgow. “So he fancies himself with a bit of pace out on the edge, so we could see him all over the place, at least for 40 or 50 minutes before the game starts to slow him down a little bit.”
This game affords Henry an excellent opportunity to force his way into Schmidt’s World Cup plans, all the more so in light of Tommy O’Donnell’s decidedly ill-timed hamstring injury.
“Absolutely. He was very much in our thoughts right through the Six Nations last season, he played right through that. He was very much starting against South Africa until the morning of the game when he had to be withdrawn. Since then I’ve stayed in touch with him a bit, tracking his progress, and his progress has been heartening, and it’s great to have him back.”
IRELAND (v Barbarians, Thomond park, Thursday, 7.45pm): Rob Kearney; Dave Kearney, Colm O'Shea, Luke Marshall, Craig Gilroy; Ian Madigan, Eoin Reddan; Jack McGrath, Richardt Strauss, Tadhg Furlong; Devin Toner, Dan Tuohy; Robbie Diack, Chris Henry, Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements: Rob Herring, Michael Bent, Mike Ross, Ben Marshall, Jordi Murphy, Luke McGrath, Paddy Jackson, Cian Kelleher.