Joe Schmidt remains coy before potential last stand
Kiwi coach says his side must go into quarter-final with New Zealand full of belief
Saturday could prove the end of Joe Schmidt’s decade long odyssey through every nook and cranny of Irish rugby. Barely a club or school has not been influenced by his coaching expertise and the see-to-believe attention to detail.
If the All Blacks prevail at the Ajinomoto Stadium in west Tokyo it means this Thursday morning, in the shadow of Disneyland, was the 54-year-old’s last pre-game ritual of providing interesting comment without revealing much.
Schmidt’s the ultimate PR man.
“We certainly are not going to sneak up on them anymore,” he said in reference to his Ireland team beating New Zealand twice in four meetings since 2013 (the other two being razor thin defeats). “I wouldn’t be a great believer in you learn more from your losses. You learn more from every experience.
“Any 23 can play very well against the All Blacks and not get the result. Because of their athletes and skill level.”
Schmidt spoke about the milestone of his tenure; winning in South Africa and ending the invincible aura surround the All Blacks.
“The accumulation of those experiences hopefully builds a bit off confidence. You need to have some belief. You can’t go out against an All Black side and accept that you are second fiddle. You got to go out and put your best foot forward.”
This Ireland side looks stronger than the team that beat New Zealand 16-9 in Dublin last year. Iain Henderson has replaced Devin Toner at lock, Robbie Henshaw wears 12 instead of the suspended Bundee Aki and Conor Murray returns to form in place of Marmion.
Also, James Ryan and other young players are a year older.
Schmidt is asked if Ireland have improved, from his perspective, since that memorable winter night.
“It’s really hard to say, because there are so many variables. We got into Tokyo late Monday evening, we trained Tuesday, we trained this morning.
“It’s hard to get a feel for quite how we’re going. We’ll do a captain’s run tomorrow and then hopefully that will be the springboard.
“I know it’s bizarre, it may sound bizarre, but being very very close to the team, I’m not necessarily any more aware of or any better at predicting how the team will go. But on past experiences, I think this team knows how to get up for big games.
“They have a confidence in each other that they can trust each other, that as long as they do their own jobs, other people will get their jobs done and that’s how you build a system, and that’s how you build a defence and an attacking platform.
“Do we have to be better? I think we always have to be better. The All Blacks are always raising the bar, and everyone else is chasing the bar and trying to get to the same height.
“I guess it is genuinely something we’ll find out on Saturday.”
The Ireland bench has lost Sean Cronin’s powerful late runs due to a neck injury but Tadhg Beirne and Rhys Ruddock will provide guile and power in equal measure for the last quarter of what promises to be another titanic struggle.
The All Blacks are, arguably, a weaker outfit than the team that lost in Dublin 11 months ago. Damian McKenzie is injured, Ryan Crotty and Reiko Ioane have been overlooked, and while Sam Cane returns, Brodie Retallick cannot possibly be fully fit after the shoulder injury sustained in July. Retallick starts with Steve Hansen not expecting the former world player of the year to go the full 80 minutes.
“Brodie is a bit of a freak when it comes to fitness,” said Hansen on Thursday morning in Tokyo. “He’s got a big motor. There’s no question mark about that. It’s all about how long we have to, or want to play him.
“We are very fortunate that we have got Scott Barrett who is a very good player in his own right so we have the ability to inject some fresh legs into the game. Those fresh legs could be the difference makers.”
Granted, the world champions’ bench of Dane Coles, Ofa Tuungafasi, Angus Ta’avao, Barrett, Matt Todd, TJ Perenara, Sonny Bill Williams and Jordie Barrett is a frightening prospect.
“We are very fortunate with our bench,” Hansen added. “It’s strong and has been for a long time. When you look at that experience on the bench it does give you a bit of confidence.”
All told, the incoming battle of wits and strategy between Schmidt and Hansen is eagerly anticipated.
“They are good guys to have a drink with afterwards,” Schmidt laughed. “I don’t really enjoy the rivalry because it’s difficult, it’s a bit of double jeopardy to be honest. I think they are smart coaches and so you are trying to think about what they are going to bring. And how they are going to try to manipulate us and at the same time you are trying to devise strategies that based on what you have seen of them and knowing them personally how you can manipulate them.
“I’ve got huge respect for Steve Hansen, Ian Foster, the full coaching staff. Mike Cron has been there a long time, seen a lot of big games, he’s creative around the lineout as well as the scrum and how to manipulate opponents. So there’s a host of challenges for us.
“Scott MacLeod [skills coach] spent three days in our camp many moons ago, so he’ll be very aware of how we function, and he’s now looking at how they are going to function against us.
“Those are the tight circles rugby works in, everybody knows everybody else pretty well, and so I’ve no doubt they’ve got a few things cooked up that we haven’t seen before that we’re going to find really challenging.
“Steve has been saying it since I have been coaching Super Rugby – your kicking game shapes defence. You got to be able to cover the space in behind so your front line can function. There is a misconception that the all Blacks don’t kick as much as anyone. Unfortunately they just kicked very well.
“In the end coaching is only a small part of what goes into the 23 players who put the jersey on and play.”
Schmidt’s results as Leinster and Ireland coach since 2010 fly in the face of such humble words.
“I enjoy that part of the job for sure. And I’ll enjoy catching up with them on Saturday. We exchanged a few texts last Saturday.”
Tell us about the texts?
“Wishing each other luck. And not that happy that we are seeing each other this early.
“As a coach coming from New Zealand and seeing those guys at the top of the tree it is pretty awesome to be in the mix coaching against them to be honest.”
Humility personified to the end. Whenever that may come.