Rarely has there been such a feel-good factor emanating from the Aviva Stadium this season as there was yesterday. In finally confirming Joe Schmidt as their choice to be the next full-time Ireland head coach, the appointment of the likeable Kiwi – the popular choice with players, punters, pundits and the IRFU themselves – may even help to boost both autumnal and 10-year ticket sales.
Unlike the desk in front of him when he was unveiled to the media yesterday, Schmidt has not even planted his legs under the table yet, and so there was little in the way of insight into his choice of assistant coaches or captain. Even so, it was also clear both would be very much his decisions, with IRFU chief executive Philip Browne stating Schmidt had “a blank sheet of paper as far as we’re concerned” with regard to his back-up staff.
Nor was there absolute confirmation of his attendance in America for Ireland's two-match tour this summer, nor any long-term targets or goals, for aside from everything else he intends being quite busy over the next three and ideally four weeks as Leinster continue their search of a Pro12/Challenge Cup double.
Working with the existing coaching staff, having a watching brief this June, and then deciding on make-up of his back-up staff is potentially tricky, all the more so as Les Kiss and Gert Smal are out of contract, as is even Anthony Foley with Munster. Given Foley has so much to offer, he should not be lost to both set-ups.
“I think in Leinster I came into a partially established coaching backroom. That allowed a bit of continuity,” said Schmidt. “I’m not sure I know who would be best yet so to comment would be probably a little bit ahead of whatever I’ve had the opportunity to think through.”
Very much a hands-on coach who likes working with smaller, more streamlined coaching staffs, all such decisions, he repeatedly said, were likely to be four to six weeks away. Regarding the scale of the challenge facing him in what he repeatedly referred to as the “suffocating windows” of Test rugby, he also expressed the hope that Ireland would enjoy a more favourable injury profile than was the case this season under his predecessor Declan Kidney.
Poacher to gamekeeper
There is an element of him turning from poacher to gamekeeper, and while there is a general acceptance amongst the provincial coaches that the national team has "precedence" he added that "all the coaches at the provinces ceded to that but they're also pretty keen to make sure they guarded their own patch as well. That will inevitably continue. Being part of the poachers, as you described them, I had reasonably positive working relationships."
Contracted for three seasons until the conclusion of the 2016 Six Nations, it was assuredly a condition of Schmidt's accession to the throne that there would be no more debriefings with the IRFU before and after each individual Test, with Browne admitting they would now be confined until after each respective block of international, ie November Tests, the Six Nations and the summer tour/2015 World Cup.
His tenure will begin on November 9th against Samoa, with Australia and his native New Zealand over the ensuing two Saturdays.
“It is a pretty tough start, to be honest. I’m not sure how we’ll go against the All Blacks after playing Samoa and Australia because that is going to be fairly attritional. By the time you get to the All Blacks, you’ll have had to endure some stormy moments. It is fairly tantalising, but daunting as well.”
As to the theory that Ireland are undergoing a transitional phase, he said: "I am a massive believer that transition is a constant. For every player who may be retiring in the next year or two, there are players coming through and I think, inevitably, when you've had world class players you don't necessarily get world class players to replace him but you might get one in a different position and they can complement each other, grow their game in a positive direction and, in the context of a team, hopefully you can get some world class players and some developing test players and that's a constant transition."
Asked what he was most looking forward to about the job, apart obviously from those debriefings with the IRFU and the media, Schmidt said: "I just want to get on the field. It's what I was doing this afternoon before I came here. It's what I enjoy doing. I really do enjoy the aspect of hands-on coaching, working with a group of players who are looking to play the way they want to play. It's one of the things about coaching, you're a facilitator of what the players really want to achieve. I think that's probably what I'd look forward to most."
That will apply to the Leinster players he has worked with as well, and Schmidt’s appointment also strengthens the chances of Brian O’Driscoll extending his career for “one more year”, as the great one was implored to do after his try against Biarritz last Saturday.
“He’s put some pressure on me, so I think I’d certainly like to put a bit of pressure on him. We put a couple of plants in the crowd to start that chant, so I hope they’ve been successful.
“The one thing is that Brian is very much his own man, he will make his own decision, but at the same time it doesn’t stop you from trying to push him towards one.
“I’d like to see him to continue. I’d love to see him named tomorrow, and I think that that would be part of a continuation of a stellar career, hopefully not the end of one.”