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Creating a culture for Ireland is Schmidt’s biggest task

The Kiwi head coach must make international rugby a truly unique experience for players, supporters and coaches.

Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

IRELAND WERE BADLY in need of fresh impetus and the IRFU decided that Joe Schmidt was the man to provide it in 2013 and beyond.

Having signed a three-year contract which began in July, the New Zealander will lead the Irish charge at the Rugby World Cup in 2015, following two full Six Nations campaigns and various other international Tests. Schmidt’s reign got underway in November of this year, but the real work has barely even begun.

What does his job briefing entail? Ensuring Ireland become a more consistent side looks like priority number one. For too long our national team has produced magnificent performances one week, before failing to back them up the next. Schmidt must make this Irish side capable of producing their higher standards more regularly.

Matching a playing style to the skills of our best players is also high up on the list of focuses for the Kiwi, particularly as the latter years of Declan Kidney’s featured a game plan that failed to harness the playmaking skills of Jonny Sexton as a central focus. In Sean O’Brien, Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip, Paul O’Connell, Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe, amongst others, Ireland has several world-class talents who need to be utilised in the most suitable manner possible.

Beneath it all, Schmidt must be the man who builds a culture for this Ireland team, a mind-frame that makes them completely distinctive from the provincial sides, but encapsulates those teams’ best features. The All Blacks’ brilliant year was underpinned by their mental power, a desire to play for the jersey and a thirst to create history by focusing on being the best at everything they could be.

Is it likely that discussions around All Blacks selection ever focus on whether an individual player is contracted to the Chiefs or the Highlanders? Absolutely not. When Dan Carter is on international duty, he is a New Zealander first and foremost; the fact that he also plays for the Crusaders is utterly insignificant.

image

©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Whether a player is from Ulster, Connacht, Leinster or Munster should be irrelevant to coaches, supporters, even the very players themselves as soon as they come into Ireland camp. Keith Earls should forgot about his duties with Munster, Rob Kearney must put Leinster out of his mind. We’re not too sure if that has truly been happening with Ireland in recent seasons.

Creating a distinct and unique culture within the Ireland set-up is the great challenge for Schmidt, particularly as he has such obvious Leinster ties himself. But it’s a necessity if Ireland are to become the true sum of their parts. We’re not attempting to suggest that provincial divides have ‘split the camp’ with Ireland before now, far from it.

Still, Ireland’s players should be excited by the prospect of joining up with the Ireland squad every single time the international calendar kicks into gear, but has that really been the case in recent seasons? Have the players arrived at Carton House knowing that they are going to be pushed to improve, challenged to get better?

Schmidt can set those high standards, while his technical excellence and rugby brain will provide the players with the opportunity to learn. The increased time the Kiwi can now spend watching and thinking about rugby will also allow him to be even more innovative in his tactical and cultural approaches. The micro-manager will bring his level of detail to an even higher standard.

These complicated tasks are all intensified by the immediacy of Six Nations demands. The 2015 Rugby World Cup looms in the background, but Schmidt’s developmental plans will be tested by the need to satisfy the IRFU’s desire for Ireland to win games in the European competition.

It’s a delicate balancing act, but there is every reason to be excited about Irish rugby in 2014 under Schmidt’s rule.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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