Tuesday 31 January 2023 Dublin: 6°C
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# Opinion
About Schmidt: Getting the basics right is his revolutionary touch
Ireland prepare for the Six Nations with one of the most focused coaches in world rugby at the helm.

PRE-SIX NATIONS optimism is an inescapable phenomenon and those who look to deride it could be suggested as working against the very reason sport is such a wonderful experience.

Some of the expectation placed on teams in the build-up to the competition is, of course, ill-founded and based on little other than sheer hope, but for Ireland the fact that Joe Schmidt is in control of the national team is a concrete reason to be positive about our chances.

The New Zealander is highly respected within the rugby community; coaches and players around the world recognise him as a leading practitioner of the art of coaching. From his time as the Ranfurly Shield-winning Bay of Plenty boss in his native land, right through to the present day with Ireland, Schmidt’s focus has been on improving his players.

When Irish players are asked what makes the former Leinster coach so good to work with, they invariably credit his ‘attention to detail’. His pre-match breakdowns of opposition weaknesses are matched only by his hawk-eye analyses of his own team’s displays. Schmidt watches rugby with a voracious appetite; he understands the game at a deep, deep level.

Luke Fitzgerald told that the Ireland squad are “loving” the chance to work under the Kiwi coach. While those plaudits would be expected, the Leinster wing backs the assertion up by going into his own detail.

“I think what’s most impressed people is the weaknesses he can spot in us, if I’m being honest. Those are the things that he’s really, really good at. Everyone’s looking at a piece of play and he sees it; you’re waddling across the pitch, thinking ‘This is my chance for a break’, [pants], hands on the head, whatever.

imageSchmidt is highly demanding of his players. ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan.

“He is like, ‘WHAT is going on over here?’ So everyone’s looking at the ball, and he’s saying, ‘Hang on, we’re looking here, what are you doing for the team? How are you making things better for the team? They’re all working at this moment, you should be working harder than this guy to get back and focus on the next play.’

“That’s what he’s really good at I think. Everyone’s been on the wrong end of things in Leinster. There have been a couple of times where someone makes a break and it looks like he’s scoring, and you’re watching, saying ‘Brilliant, I’ll have a rest now.’

He suddenly stops the video as a guy is diving for the try and he goes, ‘What were you doing there? If he made the tackle…’ It’s unbelievable, it’s incredible and to notice these things makes a team so much better, it makes you so much harder to stop.”

The tones in which Schmidt is spoken about might make one think that he is a revolutionary, a man whose ideas are ground-breaking, but that’s not really the case. His teams do not carry out attacking moves that haven’t been seen in world rugby before, they don’t defend with a system that changes everything we know about tackling.

Instead, the revolution is in the focus on the basics of rugby. Our beloved game is about passing, running, tackling, supporting, rucking and communicating with competence. Do those skills better than the other team and you will win; that’s the Schmidt philosophy.

Of course there are intelligent, perceptive elements to the game plan that Schmidt has picked up from his never-ending and in-depth analysis of rugby, but the real core of what he wants Ireland to do is in the basic skills. No matter what tactical plan a team uses, if they don’t pass, tackle, communicate, ruck and run with excellence they will not be effective.

imageSchmidt practices what he preaches and has an incredible work-rate in his coaching. ©INPHO/Billy Stickland.

If a team does not work harder off the ball than the opposition, they cannot expect to win.

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Those are the staples of the Schmidt manifesto and they are beliefs that have carried Clermont and Leinster to the forefront of European rugby in recent times. Ireland’s performance against the All Blacks in November was built on those same foundations; hard work, attention to detail and wonderful execution of the basic skills.

Again, Fitzgerald articulates the point:

His focus on the basics is just second to none in the things he spots technically every day that make you a better player. I think there wasn’t any real magic to what happened against the All Blacks. It was just really pure and simple.

“Obviously everyone fronted up and that should be a given in the international jersey. I would say that he was kind of able to show us that there’s a formula for playing any team, no matter how good. That is it, in terms of structure, attention to guys off the ball working.”

The real challenge for Schmidt is working his own brand of magic on the Irish squad in shorter spaces of time, although the Six Nations provides a wonderful opportunity for day-to-day improvements. On a three-year contract, the New Zealander has the time required to implement his standards and educate his players.

However, there is reason to believe that his impact will be evident in the coming weeks too.

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