Upbeat Schmidt firmly focused on the push for title glory
Coach says win over Scots would go a long way to sealing third championship in five years
Joe Schmidt: “It would be fantastic if that [the Grand Slam] was something we managed to do but it would be really special if we managed to get three championships in five years.” Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
The history and tradition of the world’s oldest international championship decreed that the Grand Slam was the Holy Grail, and even the Triple Crown had more of a mystique than winning the title, which was shared whenever two or more countries finished level.
That changed a tad when points’ difference was introduced to decide the outright title winners, in the event of sides finishing level, from 1994 onwards, but perhaps the biggest shift came with the finale to the 2014 Six Nations, which truly did live up to its Super Saturday billing.
Wales, Ireland and finally England all tried to outdo each other in turn on points’ difference, as England came within a converted try of snatching the title from Ireland’s grasp. Monday’s reruns of Jamie Heaslip’s last-ditch tackle on Stuart Hogg and the ensuing celebrations in the Murrayfield gloom reminded us that it felt almost as good as any Slam.
This partly depends on how the title is won, as in with a victory on the final day, rather than a defeat which denies the title winners a Grand Slam, as has happened to England more than most lately. Even so, the Grand Slam remains the Holy Grail, not least for a country which has only won one in 70 years, and two in total.
“Jeez I’d love to win a championship, you know?” stressed Joe Schmidt yesterday, “but the Grand Slam is super special, especially here. I witnessed 2009 from a distance. I was living in Clermont but I saw how people reacted, what it meant to people. When you’ve only had two of them people talk about it because what’s rare is beautiful, you want it to happen massively. For us, it would be fantastic if that was something we managed to do but it would be really special if we managed to get three championships in five years.
“That would be an incredible representation of a consistency at the very top level of Europe, and you throw in a few of the Southern Hemisphere results and it’s been an exciting time for some of these players to really test themselves.
“But these next two games, I think they just get bigger and bigger, don’t they? Scotland on that upward spiral; we’re at home in Dublin. We know the reality is that if we can get the result there then other people have to do something special to stop us from getting the championship.
“So it’s a massive short-term focus for us but for Scotland it’s a massive short term focus [as well] because they know that if they get a result here they go to Rome with what would be a massive result for them in the context of how they’ve built over the last two/three years from Vern [Cotter] through to Gregor [Townsend].”
Schmidt was just off the training pitch after an open session again opposed by the Irish Under-20s in front of 3,000 or so young fans at the Aviva Stadium and so, inevitably, was in ebullient form.
Inevitably, much of the focus has been on the defensive flaws out wide that have contributed to the concession of three tries in each of their last two home wins. Schmidt was asked how many times a young player can be allowed to make the same mistakes.
“It is a really tough question because one of the things about young players is that you’ve got to be careful they don’t lose their confidence. You are always trying to build their confidence within, I suppose, the brutality of giving transparent information. Sometimes that is brutal.
“The visual fact was shown in here this morning and it was tough for some people and some of those people were experienced players. But, with the younger players, we try to find a few positives for them as well.”
This is also primarily why Schmidt likes to bring them into the environment before exposing them at Test level.
“It is one of the reasons why you might just keep your powder dry for a while, get them into the environment, get them to understand what the expectation is going to be, so that you don’t suddenly throw them into the fire. Because once they’re burned, it can take a while to rebuild them.”
That said, Schmidt fully endorsed Jacob Stockdale’s decision to go for the intercept which ultimately sealed the win over Wales with the last play of the game.
“I thought Jacob was incredibly well-placed. I know he took that intercept but I think if that ball goes to Justin Tipuric he [Stockdale] is on a 45 degree angle, the ball in flight, I think he can make that man-and-ball tackle. I think if it pushes over his head and he has got to go to the edge to defend, I think he has put himself in a position where he can push to that and other people can connect inside him.
“What we don’t want is imagine if he had got nervous and dropped right out of the defensive line to try to cover every eventuality? Then you are being too passive. Then you are bringing Wales into it.”
While admitting Ireland didn’t “stick to the system as we’d like to sometimes”, he added: “But I think I said I’d bite your hand off after those first two wins [for a third] and that certainly hasn’t changed. February and 14 out of 15 points? Gee, that’s perfect for us so far. The imperfect thing is that we know we’ve been vulnerable in some areas of the game. We know we won’t win the championship unless we can make sure that we are good on both sides of the ball.”