Schmidt learned plenty about his players in Argentina
There were winners and losers on this tour, as always, although mostly it seemed players re-affirmed their standings
Of all the the emerging young players on the tour of Argentina, the one who made the biggest impression on Joe Schmidt was flanker Rhys Ruddock. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
It was a small, relatively throwaway remark but it was worth noting nonetheless. “This was my first tour,” Joe Schmidt reminded us, and you forget, for all his trophy hauling, 2013-14 was not only another successful campaign culminating in Ireland’s first series win abroad for 35 years, but his first as a Test head coach.
Maybe it’s because he’s been in Ireland for four seasons now, but Schmidt seems to have been coaching Ireland longer.
Maybe it was the taxing tour schedule too which allowed for just one down day, eight flights and 26 coach drives for the squad in a fortnight.
There was also all the analysis and homework (the dossiers on these young largely unknown Pumas were as extensive as if they’d been frontline All Blacks or England).
Training had been kept to the minimum, all done and dusted in 54 minutes last Thursday, but even disciples such as Jamie Heaslip, who described the tour as “intense”, and Johnny Sexton looked weary in their execution on Saturday though both rolled their sleeves up admirably.
In any event, by Saturday evening, Schmidt and his players looked like they needed a break and one ventures come a six or seven-week campaign for the World Cup, he’ll have learned to ease off a little more.
You sometimes wonder if Schmidt might be too driven for his own good too. Of course, his demanding nature and unstinting work ethic is part of what makes him the hugely successful coach he’s been, but while the players are taking four weeks off, he is affording himself a mere three weeks.
Off to New Zealand“A good winter; I’m off to New Zealand,” he said when wished a good summer, and given he will stay on for three weeks after spending four days with the Under-20s. “I’ll just do the tour for three weeks around home and then back to Dublin, roll the sleeves up and start again, see how we go.”
After his wintery summer, Schmidt’s mind is already on the visits of South Africa and Australia, as well as Georgia, next autumn.
Reflecting on a one-from-three return last November to six wins out of seven since, Schmidt said: “you can feel that the bar has been set high for next season. But we have got to be prepared to work hard enough to make sure that we gets somewhere near that bar and we didn’t on Saturday.
“I’d love to be able to continue that sequence (of wins). It is not often you get on a five- match winning sequence and watching South Africa you have got to be nervous about the quality of the performance that is going to be required to topple them, and I will be watching the rest of their games through the championship with interest.”
Most of all, Schmidt learned plenty about his players and inevitably there were winners and losers on this tour, as always, although mostly it seemed players re-affirmed their standing.
David Kilcoyne carried dynamically at times in his second Test start last Saturday but Jack McGrath cemented his standing as back-up loosehead to Cian Healy, both with his excellent all-round performance in the first Test and his impact off the bench in the second.
Both Schmidt and Paul O’Connell were effusive in their praise of Ruddock for gaining yards he had no right to gain in the contact area. In the modern game that is arguably the most valuable commodity of all, all the more so given the comparative dearth of such Irish players compounded by the premature retirement of Stephen Ferris.
Superb lineout abilityOf the half dozen new caps, and helped by being the only starter of the six, ironically another blindside, Robbie Diack, showed up best with his superb lineout ability and mobility around the park. Of the other five, by all accounts Noel Reid trained very well, whereas Rodney Ah You and to a lesser extent Kieran Marmion may have been reminded of how far they need to travel yet.
Simon Zebo, who along with O’Connell ended up being the only players to complete 160 minutes, must have impressed a doubting Schmidt and the rest of the coaching staff with his improved defence and work-rate as well as reminding them of his undoubted X factor.
That said, for Schmidt’s liking especially, he still needs to be sharper and more effective around the breakdown.
It still seems a pity Tommy O’Donnell wasn’t out here, but it was good to see Ian Madigan make it and take on the responsibility to steer Ireland home last Saturday. Hopefully the season just past will ultimately have been a profitable interruption, because game-breaking talents like his are rare.
Neither Madigan himself nor Schmidt appear to regard him as an inside centre option, yet it is a problem position. With Gordon D’Arcy undergoing a shoulder operation, opportunity knocked for Luke Marshall.
All the component parts of a very good Test inside centre are there, yet three missed tackles in the first Test underlined his continuing rawness in defence, and there was also a reminder, albeit medically cleared, of his history with concussion.
Outside Marshall, Darren Cave had a good first Test in his favoured position of outside centre, but like Fergus McFadden, who has made himself into a high class operator on the wing, looked out of position in the second Test. Put another way, in the post Brian O’Driscoll era, D’Arcy lost no ground in his absence here, and no-one is much the wiser as to who will be the midfield combination against South Africa in November or the pivotal World Cup game against France 16 months down the track.