Joe Schmidt’s regeneration of Ireland begins to take shape

Players put their hands up on North American tour while the backroom team is coming together


After so much change in both the front and back offices of the IRFU, the tour of North America represented a time of new beginnings.

Les Kiss took the reins these past three weeks, allowing Joe Schmidt a soft landing into a role even the hugely successful Kiwi admits is a deeply intimidating challenge.

Schmidt took a back seat, making brief visits to Carton House and only arriving in Houston in time for the captain’s run a day prior to playing the US.

He found it difficult to take an inactive role beside team manager Mick Kearney as the most inexperienced Ireland side since 1962 squeezed home, beating the US 15-12, thanks to the competence and control of Ian Madigan, Devin Toner, the scrum and a fine young leader in Peter O’Mahony.

None of the above trio were in an Ireland training squad two seasons back. That’s because they had yet to break into their provincial sides. In fact, only five of last Saturday’s starting XV in Toronto made the 2011 World Cup squad.

Toner has made the most noticeable strides having been charged with filling the shoes of Brad Thorn and Nathan Hines.

“Dev has really ramped his game up in the Rabo, the Heineken and the big end season matches,” said Kiss.

“You can obviously see he has learnt a lot from Leo (Cullen) and it is coming through now. This was a great opportunity to expose him to this level and ask him to take charge. And he did. He did a fantastic job. He has certainly put his hand up and it will be an interesting conversation (in November). It gives us effective depth.”

The sight of Toner striding towards the line and offloading for Fergus McFadden’s second try in Toronto was astonishingly like Malcolm O’Kelly in his prime. And he fixed a disastrous two from six lineout return in the first half against the US by calling almost everything on himself thereafter. Only one more throw was lost.

New personnel
Irish rugby changed rapidly on the field, with new personnel blooded at an alarming rate in 2013 due to a horrendous injury list, but more appointments are imminent behind the scenes.

Stephen McNamara has arrived from Ryanair as a polished director of communications, who used this trip to get an insight into the politics of an Ireland rugby tour.

By November McNamara will have a communications manager in place to handle day to day media activities so he can focus on bigger issues like the threat to drinks sponsorship and the union’s bid to bring the World Cup to this island in 2023 or 2027.

It would be helpful to see a Performance Director in place by then. Of course, that job should have already been filled by a Conor O’Shea type overseer that achieves greater on and off field cohesion from province to international squad.

O’Shea is the outstanding Irish born candidate but headhunters Odgers Berndtson are casting a wide net.

Schmidt also seems to think a High Performance scrum coach will be arriving sooner rather than later and that appointment can also assist the Irish scrum rather than have Greg Feek double jobbing with Leinster.

Whipping into shape
But Schmidt’s main concern is to hire a man capable of whipping the Irish forwards into shape with just a fortnight’s preparation before the Samoa, Australia and New Zealand games in November.

“Obviously there is myself and Les in place but I’d like the team to be a little bit smaller than the previous coaching team so we’ve got a tight knit unit really,” he explained. “I like the number I have worked with in previous years. In Clermont it was just myself, Vern Cotter and Alex King.”

Remember Schmidt didn’t hire anyone in Leinster. Even fellow Kiwi Jono Gibbes was already in place.

For a kicking coach it would make sense to bring in Dave Alred on a consultancy basis as he is Jonny Sexton’s mentor, although Madigan credits Richie Murphy with reconstructing his reliable kicking technique.

But these are all manageable problems, and knowing Schmidt, he has already shook his new forward coach’s hand. So, by next season there could be at least four new important figures installed to modernise Irish rugby both on and off the paddock.

All Schmidt has to do is conjure up victories over the Wallabies and the All Blacks. And win the Grand Slam. Easy.