Rugby World Cup: Joe Schmidt - 'I’ll be frank, I don’t have a specific philosophy'
Ireland coach: ‘We will adapt to what we think is going to best suit us and best combat them’
There’s something very apt about a Rugby World Cup quarter-final against New Zealand being one of, and perhaps the ultimate, defining game of the gilded Joe Schmidt era. No Irish coach, and few coaches internationally, have helped to make a team to go toe-to-toe with the All Blacks in this manner.
He may never have played for them, but the All Blacks and New Zealand rugby generally have informed his coaching philosophy like no other team or country.
Born in a small town in the Bay of Islands area of the Northland Region of New Zealand called Kawakawa (with a population of less than 2,000) Schmidt then grew up in Te Aroha, a rural town in the Waikato region with a population of less than 4,000, before his family moved to Woodville close to the southern edge of the north island.
“Inevitably, as a four-year-old kid when I first started playing rugby, barefoot rugby in Te Aroha in New Zealand, everyone looks up to the All Blacks,” he explained. “You watch them as a young kid and all the way through.
“Obviously, when you get to the stage when you’re coaching Super Rugby, the All Blacks are very much a part of feeding information down and helping coaches develop. I would have got to know Graham Henry well. I’d have a huge respect for what he built into the All Black formula.
“You’re learning from that, but I think people don’t realise how much philosophies are fluid. The game changes, there are subtle rule changes or there are different ways other teams play, so you have got to adjust your philosophy all the time.
“Then, you’ve got players who have strengths in particular areas and are not so strong in others, so you adapt. I think as soon as you think as a coach that ‘this is the philosophy, this is the way we do it’, it’s a really dangerous position to assume because the game is fluid. The way it’s played is different.”
Schmidt cited the variations off lineouts compared with even a decade ago, or kick-offs to 20 years ago when both packs assembled on the same side of the pitch and if not sent toward them it was seen as not in the spirit of the game.
“That fluidity changes philosophy, it changes preparation and, I guess, it demands more from players. Players now, they need to be multifaceted, no matter what position they play. So, all those things meld into a philosophy.
“I’ll be frank, I don’t have a specific philosophy. We have an opponent this week and we adapt to what we think is going to best suit us and best combat them. There might be subtle changes week-to-week, but there are changes.”
And it is Ireland’s ability to adapt to the All Blacks on four different occasions and finding ways to be consistently competitive, even winning two of them by scoring five tries to four in Chicago or one try to nil last November, which along with the players’ ability emboldens the belief in this team’s capacity to dethrone the champions.
Schmidt has probably watched every All Blacks game since he was four or so, and for the last four meetings will have analysed in them in forensic detail. If there is one common trait that any opposition team has to guard against, it was no surprise to hear Schmidt say: “I think most coaches would say transition. If you turn ball over to them they’re ferociously dangerous. Their speed to transition from defence to attack is something that everybody fears about the All Blacks.
“They are so quick to make the most of it. They have athletes who have skills, who have speed and they have an innate sort of attacking mentality that they are almost wired for it. They’re going to do it very quickly and trying to keep up with the speed that they do it is very difficult.”
He cited their opening try in Chicago and their second try against the Springboks on the opening weekend as examples.
“They’ve got set plays, they’re strong in the set piece, they’ve got all those other elements but if you were going to pick something out, their transition into attack is probably what most teams worry most about with them.”
Interestingly, the respective match-day squads are almost identical in terms of overall caps (New Zealand have 1,075 and Ireland 1,054). While Ireland have the more settled side, with a dozen of the starting XV from last November’s meeting and 17 of that match-day squad, the All Blacks retain eight of the run-on line-up and 14 of their 23 from that day.
“There are some changes but I think the changes are still going to be really complicated for us,” said Schmidt.
Schmidt welcomed the appointment of Nigel Owens and revealed he had not sought information on the strong Crusaders contingent from their former backs coach Ronan O’Gara.
“I haven’t spoken to him just because I think it’s a little bit awkward if I’m pestering him for information when he had a loyalty to a particular team at that time.”
No less than Schmidt and scrum coach Greg Feek, this could be Rory Best’s last game, and against the team he made his debut against in a 45-7 defeat in 2003 at the old Lansdowne Road.
Comparing the 37-year-old Irish captain with that 23-year-old debutant, Best admitted: “I think I’m substantially better prepared as an individual, even just the physique and my condition. I suppose back then I was young and inexperienced, and didn’t realise what it took to get to the top. And I think I look after myself a lot better now, or certainly try to.
“When you’re that age you don’t know any better. Joe talked about how much the game has changed, and you kind of just turned up and thought you were a good player and that would be enough on the day. Now it’s changed a lot.
“And as a team, that (preparation) has been our big thing. That’s why by and large we’ve been able to achieve consistency over the last number of years, because we understand what it takes to perform at the top level and how small those margins are. Whenever you don’t get it quite right against the best teams you don’t win.
“Ultimately, that is where we’re at. Look, I think we’re really looking forward to this weekend and hopefully,” said Best with a smile, “it’s not something that comes full circle and starts and stops against the All Blacks.”