Joe Schmidt identifies the faults in Ireland’s fledgling stars
Coach quick to point out the flaws as well as offer suitable encouragement to new faces
Joe Schmidt: “I think Bundee was probably disappointed with some of his handling at times. He prides himself on looking after the ball and doing it well.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Joe Schmidt sees the faults in our stars. As the Ireland coach must.
Mateo Minozzi is eight months older than Jordan Larmour. Sixty-five minutes into this fluffy Test match Larmour came into brief contact with the Italian fullback on halfway as Minozzi feinted to glide infield before nimbly stepping outside the 20-year-old. The end result was Edoardo Gori’s try.
“I thought Jordan got slightly awkwardly positioned and that’s a fantastic learning opportunity for him,” says the 52-year-old. “He is such a good learner, such a positive character.”
The Schmidt way, flaws instantly followed by encouragement as the message gets condensed and controlled like never before.
The Ireland coach refused to be surrounded by the usual “print huddle” after this emphatic 56-19 victory over Italy. The new rules of engagement, now firmly on his terms, worked well after beating nations ranked 10th and 14th in the world (sixth and seventh up next). Until Saturday, daily papers were granted an off-camera forum where repetitive messaging could be interrupted – as reporters are trained to do when direct questions go unanswered – but this never sat well with the former deputy-principal.
However, as relations between the IRFU and written journalists plummet, relations between Ireland’s rising stars and the public grows stronger. Like most coaches, Schmidt manipulates the media to serve his team, as shown by balanced comment on the performances of Larmour, Andrew Porter, Bundee Aki and Dan Leavy.
Tadhg Furlong’s attempts at unreal mobility were betrayed by his 126 kilogram frame when sprinting across to tackle Italy centre Tommaso Boni. The left hamstring needs restringing at this week’s Athlone camp but the instant gift was multiple scrums and 77 minutes of road in front of Porter.
“I haven’t played that much since UCD!” laughed the maturing 22-year-old.
The exiting Furlong slapped Porter’s belly, so did Rory Best, the captain adding encouragement as this monstrous kid packed down. The first engagement collapsed, the second was rock solid, and so went this Six Nations debut against a callow Italian front row.
“Seventy-seven minutes and I think he only got the engine running,” Schmidt purrs. “I think he came on and made a super effort. There was difficulty at scrum time, a lot of hedging and difficulty keeping the scrum up and he was giving his best shot there.
“He was working hard to get in good positions to make good tackles [seven] and he carried the ball really strongly [13 rumbles for 18 close-in metres]. He kept putting his hand up. We thought it was a fantastic investment to give him that amount of time.”
Furlong could miss the Wales game – Schmidt says maybe not – but Robbie Henshaw (shoulder) looks done for the season. That should accelerate the Bundee Aki era. Connacht’s durable centre beat five defenders to cover 65 metres, led the defence with 12 tackles, created and scored tries, and now becomes the midfield glue alongside either Chris Farrell or Garry Ringrose.
Schmidt’s gentle warning preceded gushing praise.
“I think Bundee was probably disappointed with some of his handling at times. He prides himself on looking after the ball and doing it well. He is a creator of play as well as a go-forward player. He did the full gambit today...Bundee keeps growing into his game at the international level, players are getting used to him, and we are keen for that to continue.”
Schmidt clearly believes Leavy can swallow tough love. The 56th minute try by Tommaso Allan, when the openside was skinned by Tommaso Castello, prompted the coach to note: “Dan Leavy did some good stuff today. You know, slipped off one tackle that he will be disappointed with and hopefully that will be a springboard to make sure of it next time.”
Still, Leavy’s ascent to greatness happens before our eyes. The art of the turnover: Braam Steyn carried into Jack McGrath as Leavy latched over both bodies to squirt the ball out Ireland’s side for Jack Conan to feed Johnny Sexton to Aki who splintered the disorganised blue line and put Earls away for a 27th international try (the Munster man is fast closing in on Tommy Bowe’s 30).
Jacob Stockdale has six tries from six caps, leaving Larmour with some catching up to do.
“You put a guy on the wing and it’s his Test debut and he is a little bit nervous. I think once he ran at the Italians they were a little nervous about him. I think he turned a few of them inside out.”
This we saw on 79 minutes when three Italian defenders were disappeared by footwork unseen since Luke Fitzgerald as Larmour provided a thrilling glimpse of promised alchemy in weeks and years ahead.
“Absolutely inside out.”