Murray Kinsella reports from Sydney
JOE SCHMIDT INSISTED that he wasn’t going to watch the third Test back until Wednesday but you’d have to suspect that the Ireland head coach had a look as he made his way to New Zealand on Sunday.
The Ireland boss will catch up with family and take part in a few fundraisers in Palmerston North, where he used to coach at the Boys’ High School, before returning to Dublin, where he plans to “bury myself for a week at least to catch up with my family.”
But the temptation to look back on Ireland’s 20-16 win in Sydney, so dramatic and wild a game, was surely too difficult to resist for a coach as studious and obsessive as Schmidt.
He is more aware than anyone that standing still is a recipe for disaster and even in the immediate aftermath of Ireland’s series success against the Wallabies, Schmidt was looking forward.
How do you top a season that included a November clean sweep, a Grand Slam and a Test series success Down Under? Schmidt will attempt to find a way and the World Cup next year is now an even more realistic target.
“I’m kind of intimidated by the season because how do you repeat that?” said Schmidt on Saturday. “It’s tough to go again and with that expectation. We have that expectation of ourselves that we’re going to try to keep working and try to keep improving.
“We have put a couple of things together – good, unusual things – and it is good because it does put a line in the sand, to back things up. We don’t want to be one-hit wonders, but while we have earned where we are tonight, in the scale of things, we want to keep growing.
“It is so fickle, so competitive and I know how quickly it can turn.”
Schmidt cites England as a prime example. Although the Ireland boss expected them to win against South Africa on Saturday, Eddie Jones’ men lost their Southern Hemisphere series 2-1 and their Grand Slam just two years ago seems like a distant memory.
Ireland could have suffered disappointment on this tour, particularly after the first Test defeat to the Wallabies in Brisbane saw them perform relatively poorly – with uncharacteristic errors and a lack of accuracy in the ruck and their ball-carrying.
It was also interesting to see how Andy Farrell questioned the “old-fashioned Irish ticker” of the squad – publicly and privately – in the wake of the Wallabies beating Ireland in the physicality stakes.
The response in Tests two and three was emphatic.
“That was a turning point in the tour,” said Jordan Larmour. “Rugby is about the collisions and if that is being questioned, it is a bit of an insult, I suppose.
“Everyone takes it to heart, everyone wants to put that right, so when Andy said that it gave us a kick up the ass. We know we have to step up and we have to produce.
“We spoke about it during the week. I think in that game there [on Saturday], we showed in the last 10 minutes when they were coming at us, all the boys dug deep.”
Indeed, Farrell’s defence covered itself in glory in the final Test, even if Marika Koroibete managed to dot down off Bernard Foley’s excellent grubber kick.
‘We pride ourselves on our defence and we showed in the Six Nations what we can do as a team,” said CJ Stander.
“On Faz’s side, he gives us a great tool to go out on the weekend and perform, put in the big hits. In that first game we didn’t, but the second and third we picked up a bit better.
“We knew they were going to attack us every time in a wave, they’re the best attacking team we’ve played against so far. They put us under pressure but it’s good to get some big hits in there.”
Already, Schmidt is excited about what lies ahead for Ireland next season, with a busy November schedule before they attempt to retain their Grand Slam title and build towards the World Cup.
Leinster were already back in pre-season last week and with the other provinces kicking into gear too, Schmidt is aware that Ireland will need to keep progressing and asking how they can get better.
“I had a brief text chat with Stuart Lancaster this morning and they are back in pre-season training already,” said Schmidt. “He’s saying Sean O’Brien, Josh van der Flier and Rhys Ruddock are looking good.
“That is exactly what you want to hear, that they are back in the fold and doing well.
“We had Will Addison over here in Melbourne and he is heading to Ulster, so there is a bit of new blood, new talent, new competition coming in. He was sharp when he trained with us, we were a few numbers down.
“There is nothing that helps more than having someone sharp coming in, rather than Richie Murphy and I running on the wings because you have decrepit and decrepiter on the wings. Jordan Larmour was just laughing at us!
“It is one of those things – you keep your head up, looking around; the players have done a great job.
“But I am not going to be talking to them about what they need to improve on, certainly not tonight, I am not going to talk about it because I am not going to be looking at it.”
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