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Emotional Schmidt prepares to make decision on Ireland future with his family

‘It is tough for me, to be honest. I cannot believe the support we have had here as a family.’

FOR A MOMENT, Joe Schmidt’s train of thought veered away from the task at hand and in letting his guard down, the Ireland head coach gave the strongest indication yet that he will signal his intention to end his tenure next year in the coming days. 

Schmidt yesterday confirmed that he will make a decision regarding his future beyond the 2019 World Cup by early next week, and then sitting down with the print media became visibly emotional when speaking about the support his family have received in Ireland.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt speaking at Carton House yesterday. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“It is tough for me, to be honest,” Schmidt said, adding he will be the most relieved when his decision is finally made public at the conclusion of Ireland’s November series.

The Kiwi’s contract with the IRFU expires at the end of next year’s World Cup in Japan and Schmidt will continue to deliberate the matter with his wife, Kellie, and four children over the weekend following Ireland’s Test against USA on Saturday evening.

In suggesting the demands of the job, and indeed the success of the national team during his reign, has come at the expense of family time, Schmidt said ‘I know I can’t continue to just go backwards and forwards. I’ve beaten myself up enough over this decision.’

The 53-year-old — who earlier admitted he was agonising over his decision — was clearly emotional when the subject of his future was brought up later in the press conference.

“I report to David Nucifora [IRFU performance director] and I would have a good working relationship with David. I have felt he and Philip Browne and the committee have given us huge support,” he continued.

“I think they are great people to work for. They have given us a real licence to trial things, to take risks. The first Test in Australia, I think a few people looked at that Test team and went where is this guy, where is that guy, where is the other guy, and it is one of those things that we have certainly felt as a coaching team, as a staff behind the team we have felt fully supported by that group.

“That is part of really being able to enjoy our job when you do feel you have got that full support. 

“It will be a chat with David Nucifora on Monday or [it] might even be Sunday evening.

“Obviously the CEO Philip Browne, and as you describe my own CEO, my wife Kellie, and the kids…we are going to get a bit of time for a brunch on Sunday and kind of nut a few things out. 

“I am not sure, you know, and I cannot believe the support we have hard here as a family. Obviously with Luke [his son, who has epilepsy] he has phenomenal support….I will ask her [his wife] a question and see how we go.”

While Schmidt’s focus remains on Ireland’s final Test of a momentous year, his decision will hang over this weekend’s concluding November series outing against USA at the Aviva Stadium. 

In making 14 changes in personnel from last weekend’s victory over the All Blacks, Schmidt has taken the opportunity to further inspect the depth chart within his squad, in what will be one of his final chances to do so before the World Cup.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt has made 14 changes this week. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Garry Ringrose is the only player retained this week, as the likes of John Cooney — who will make his first start at scrum-half — and Tadhg Beirne are among those given hard-earned and well-deserved opportunities to stake their claim. 

The strength in depth Schmidt has built across the board in this World Cup cycle is a far cry from when he took the reins back in 2013, at which point Ireland were ranked eighth in the world.

Reflecting on the last six years in the job, during which Ireland have won three Six Nations titles and risen to second in the world behind the All Blacks, Schmidt admits the achievements ‘blow you away.’

“Some of the performances, some of the trophies, I mean, it blows you away really in some ways that this group have probably continued to grow,” he said.

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“You know we used 17 players to start in that first [2014] Six Nations and it was all about making sure that we were as competitive in that first Six Nations as possible and it wasn’t about growing as a squad and it was a bit like that in the second one [in 2015].

Then with what happened in the World Cup you had to rethink and rebuild and we finished third and then second and got back to the peak of our Six Nations performances with that Grand Slam. 

“It is one of those things that I probably wouldn’t have foreseen but I think this group has worked incredibly hard to get to where they are and I don’t mean just the playing group, I mean the staff, from nutritional to medical to analysis to the coaching staff to the strength and conditioning staff.

“And the provincial coaching staff — I was taking to Leo [Cullen] last night, I was taking to Dan McFarland yesterday, I was talking to Johann [van Graan], Friendy [Andy Friend] is obviously over in South Africa, we had a couple of good chats just before he left, they are all working incredibly hard to maximise their opportunities provincially.

“I think the alignment has never been so strong. I think it has a dual benefit, they are managing players, bringing them through. Leo has named a whole bunch of academy kids in his squad for this weekend. I am as excited as Leo is to see some of those guys play.”

Schmidt likens the Irish system, and how the national team and provinces are aligned, to that of the New Zealand one, but warned the healthy position they currently find themselves in can change very quickly.

“There’s no way that we want everyone to play the same way. Every province has a little bit of their own character and they have different ingredients. They create their own mix and we think that that’s healthy.

“Variety is something that’s essential to keeping people fresh and also freshening our ideas as well. So I do think it’s in a really good place at the moment and it is fickle because things can change but it has allowed us to put ourselves in a strong position in some ways.

Sammy Arnold Sammy Arnold could make his debut against USA. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Then you’ve still got to retain the work ethic and the enthusiasm, but it’s hard for kids not to get excited when you have a crowd like you had last Saturday. It was phenomenal. Even when we got back to the hotel after the game, I met a couple of people who said they’d come straight from the stadium.

“I said, ‘Really? You must have been there for a couple of hours.’ And they said, ‘Yeah, we didn’t want it to end.’

“It’s a great position to be in for us. It means something to the players, that they feel they have that degree of support.”

The Aviva Stadium will be sold-out again for Saturday’s concluding fixture of the year, as Schmidt’s much-changed side bid to extend their record home Test winning run to 12, having won 17 of their last 18 Test outings in all.

In naming Stuart McCloskey in midfield and uncapped Sammy Arnold on the bench, Schmidt’s selection means he’ll have used 41 of the 42 players in his squad during this four-game window, Robbie Henshaw being the odd one out after his hamstring injury pre-Argentina.

Schmidt spoke at length about the opportunities afforded to the likes of McCloskey, Andrew Conway, Jack Conan, Jordi Murphy, Niall Scannell and Finlay Bealham this weekend, conceding it is a big day for those players on the fringes of the squad.

“There’s lots of conversation for the coaching staff to have post this game,” he added.

Without leaving this team rudderless, we wanted to put them under a bit of pressure, so, at the end of the full four-game series, that will allow us to know more. 

“The Italy game was tough on players. They only really had that one training. They didn’t quite get that continuity. America aren’t going to make anything easy for us. I wouldn’t be surprised if this game is a relatively tight one.

“Last year, in this particular bracket, we played Fiji and won by three points. They are the games that we intentionally put players out there, wanting to put them under pressure, wanting to see how they responded under pressure.

“They had to scramble their way through that game. Hopefully, we’re not scrambling. Hopefully, we can put together a performance that allows us to get the result at the end of the day.”

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