Nerves set in for Joe Schmidt as big event approaches

Ireland coach focused on ‘getting the very best out of those 31 men’ at Rugby World Cup

Ireland’s Josh van der Flier at the Guinness Series pre-World Cup friendly against Wales at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Ireland’s Josh van der Flier at the Guinness Series pre-World Cup friendly against Wales at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

The dress rehearsals are finally dispensed with and now, at last, comes the real thing. Thank heaven for that. As with most other head coaches, Joe Schmidt has been planning this in ever-increasing detail for four years, and no sooner had the die been cast on Ireland’s restorative 19-10 win over Wales at the Aviva Stadium than the prospect of the World Cup was filling him with understandable trepidation.

“Yeah, nervous,” was the adjective he ruefully used to describe his feelings. “I finish in two months’ time and it is so important to me personally, and I can’t let that be part of the equation. It is still very much all about getting the very best out of those 31 men who will be looking to get the very best out of themselves.”

He echoed Rory Best’s comments on achieving “that inter-dependence that we have in all aspects of the game” and highlighted the scrums and the way that the lineout was “problem-solved” after losing the first two throws. He also hailed the way the Irish defence stayed connected when stretched, citing the example of James Ryan combining with winger Jordan Larmour to force one first-half turnover.

“Those sorts of things, that gives the other players on the pitch a real confidence,” said Schmidt, which could have been in reference to almost anything the remarkable Ryan does.

“Now we are also realistic about what these matches are as opposed to two weeks’ time and what those tests matches become. And we are pragmatic enough to know there are a number of things in that first quarter that we didn’t do very well. So that all goes into a melting pot as you are trying to make sure that the next recipe is slightly better.”

Gilded years

His personal desires are fuelled by the quarter-final defeat by Argentina four years ago and by the knowledge that this will be his last gig after 6½ largely gilded years. And, for the first time, he admitted that the timing of his announcement, after the last autumn series, was not ideal, albeit he explained that if he left it any later it ran the risk of losing some of the coaching staff.

“When I did it, it wasn’t the best time, immediately after the November series. But I didn’t want it to be an ongoing saga and I am also a huge believer that we have super people working here. I am very much part of a team working hard behind a team and I don’t think that will change much. One of the negatives about having a very consistently performing team is that people start coming in and start picking people out of your environment because they want to get some of them, and some of that pressure was coming on.

“Some of the coaches had very good offers from elsewhere and I just feel there’s a time to give the mantle to them. Otherwise, you’re standing in the way of their progress and, if they move away and you finally finish, you have to kind of build things up from the bottom again.”

Ireland’s Bundee Aki in action against Wales on Saturday. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Ireland’s Bundee Aki in action against Wales on Saturday. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
If we can beat Scotland, there’s so much riding on that game and they know the same thing

All along, the stated goal has been to help Ireland go where no Irish team has gone before, namely the World Cup semi-finals, but Schmidt found it hard to see beyond that critical and pivotal opener against Scotland in Yokohama.

“It’s funny, while I might say that, I will be looking at Scotland, and you’ve got to have a look at Japan as a coach, but certainly the players will have no interest in Japan or anything else. If we can beat Scotland, there’s so much riding on that game and they know the same thing, and they’re such a good side. I don’t want to go through their team if you want to test me on the 31,” he said self-deprecatingly, in reference to his penchant for going through virtually an entire opposing squad.

‘Massive respect’

“And it’s not just their team. It’s their team behind the team. I know Gregor Townsend well and I’ve got massive respect for him. I think he’s a smart coach and on the back of that they’re going to be a huge challenge. So yes, we’d love to make that semi-final and I don’t set goals. So it’s not even a goal, it’s a dream I have that I’d love to see come to fruition, but it will all be about what happens in two weeks’ time.”

It was particularly encouraging to see the players looking so physically well conditioned, in sharp contrast to the Twickenham hiding when they took that game on the run between the Algarve and the Carton House.

“I know people were disappointed and I absolutely agree with them,” said Schmidt of that 57-15 defeat after which, apparently, he read the riot act in the away dressing room. “They deserved to be disappointed. The players deserved to cop some flak because we can be disappointed, but it’s exactly what Besty said: we lose a lineout but what we can’t do is then have our head down thinking ‘oh, we’ve lost another lineout’ while Maro Itoje runs a good line.

“I don’t care how good his line is, we’ve got to make sure we get to where we need to be to win something back. If you lose something you’ve got to win it back. So, we were heavy-legged and I was prepared to take the responsibility for that from the players, but I think the players had to also accept a degree of responsibility.

“That’s the only time I can remember in 6½ years that we haven’t really fought hard for the jersey. We’ve lost games and we haven’t lost that many, to be honest, because they do fight hard for the jersey. It will be tough at the World Cup and Scotland will be tough, but we will be tough.”

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