Undaunted Joe Schmidt ready to embrace massive challenge
After their win over the All Blacks, South Africa are now ranked second in the world
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt: “Tthe All Blacks would tbe nice but South Africa and Australia will be challenging enough.” Photo: Dan Sheridan
On the face of it, this looks almost like the perfect storm. About the only redeeming feature is that an injury ravaged Ireland are not facing the All Blacks, although first up in the Guinness Series on Saturday week is the team which beat them four weeks ago and are merely ranked the second best side on the planet.
Furthermore, hardened by a three-test series over Wales and their six-match Rugby Championship, the uber physical Springboks have had a two- week training camp and arrive pretty much fully locked and loaded, with ne’er a nod towards experimentation against the Six Nations champions.
By contrast, this will be Ireland’s first test since June, and Joe Schmidt is missing his primary two ball carriers, and a third off the bench, as well as other options in the second-row and elsewhere, notably five test wingers. He also has ongoing concerns about his tight-head and full-back, positions where the cupboard is not exactly over flowing.
All in all, mission impossible? “I think it’s Mission Really Tough,” ventured Schmidt after yesterday’s open training session in the Aviva. “I remember, if you didn’t want to do the mission, you could throw it back in the water and it’d blow up in five seconds – that’s not our modus operandi. We’re very motivated to give it our best shot. We have a great group of players who have shown massive enthusiasm, that brings a whole energy to the group. Whatever mission it is, we are absolutely committed to it.”
Schmidt admitted that Ireland were probably too thinly resourced right now to take on the All Blacks as well as South Africa and Australia in a four- test autumnal programme ala Wales and England, aside from which it would work against the provinces. By contrast, he noted, Stuart Lancaster has to work with a dozen clubs and would not have the same interaction which Schmidt and co enjoy with four provinces.
“If we had a fully fit squad it would be super,” he added. “I still haven’t forgotten last year. I would love for the players to get another opportunity and I would love for the supporters to do what they did last November. I have never been in any stadium where that cacophony of sound was so positive and so enthusiastic. We would love to get that from the crowd again, and we know the only way to get that is to play the big teams and play big when you play them. So the All Blacks would be nice, but South Africa and Australia will be challenging enough.”
“Therefore, you’ve got to adjust. If you don’t adapt, you die. It is important for us to be adaptable, to utilise and maximise the group we have and, for them, to be driven to do that. We’re incredibly lucky because I revert back to that enthusiasm and that endeavour they have demonstrated.
“We know it is still going to be incredibly tough and they are conscious of that, so, for us, the crystallisation of that group and the group wider than that because we know the perfect group isn’t going to exist for us. Someone’s not going to be there that we’d like to have and someone is probably going to be a number of players.”
Schmidt appeared to suggest Robbie Henshaw had moved ahead of Jared Payne in the pecking order to begin filling the void left by Brian O’Driscoll’s retirement. “I think there’s a potential for Jared Payne to start,” he said, and cited the naturalised Kiwi’s angles of running, defending and experience of playing against South African players. “We think that that’s a bit of an advantage as well, knowing your opponent and he can bring that experience to the group.”
However, when then asked whether the 21-year-old Henshaw is ready to play at outside centre against South Africa, Schmidt said: “I guess in nine days’ time we’ll know.” He admitted that a more gradual introduction to the “massive ask” of facing Jan Serfontein and Jean de Villiers would have been preferable.
“Who is inside them, whether it’s (Handre) Pollard or (Pat) Lambie or (Morne) Steyn, they’re all an influence on how Robbie gets the opportunity to do his job and how much help he can give to the wingers, because I think we’re going to need to stay connected there, whether it be (Bryan) Habana, JP Pietersen or Cornel Hendricks, or (Willie) le Roux chiming in from the back. I think there’s a good challenge for him there.”