'I'd be lying if I thought that we were suddenly world beaters' - Schmidt

The Ireland head coach delivered his verdict on the three-Test tour of South Africa.

Rory Keane reports from Port Elizabeth

IT’S ABOUT 7.30pm [South African time] on Saturday night.

Ireland’s press conference has just finished as Joe Schmidt and Rory Best reflected on a Test match, and a series, that got away.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt's players couldn't get over the line. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

As is the case on the Irish press beat, Ireland’s head coach will then meet with the travelling media for a quick chat, usually in a secluded area away from the local press.

When Schmidt arrives he is sporting the same expression as the journalists who made the long trip down here to Bok country; bleary-eyed and weary looking. It’s been a demanding trip, both on and off the field.

Regrets? Joe will have a few. There will be moments from the final Test that he will agonise over in the coming months, that’s just the way he’s wired.

Luke Marshall’s mis-timed pass to Keith Earls when the Munster winger had a clear run to the line, Paddy Jackson’s lobbed pass to Andrew Trimble that was plucked out of the sky by Faf de Klerk, ironically the smallest player on the pitch, and, of course, that last-ditch tackle by the diminutive Bok scrum-half on Earls after the final hooter.

“The younger guys have made a great investment,” said the Kiwi of this tour.

“The success will be made in the longer term but any investment you’ve got to be a little bit patient with and I’m not going to rip into a player who made a poor decision or didn’t execute something under Test match pressure because I want them to keep going, keep gaining confidence that they can cope in the arena that we’re in. To be honest, over these three Tests they should have learned that they can. 

“I think we really missed – not because of anything Tiernan [O’Halloran] missed – but we really missed Jared Payne at the back. He gives so much calm and so often picks the right option to play.

“The lack of experience that we did have showed, but there was no lack of endeavour and I think we created the better chances in the game and it is so disappointing not to have capitalised on those and got the win we so desperately wanted.” 

Joe Schmidt addresses the backs Several fringe players stood up for Ireland. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

There was an overwhelming sense of relief from the home side at the final whistle. When you look at the post-match stats, you wonder how this Irish side, despite their inexperience, could have lost this match. Schmidt’s men made nine clean breaks and beat 25 defenders.

The Boks? They managed to break the Irish defensive line on one occasion and beat just five defenders. Ireland made 405 metres in total with the Boks managing just 154. Ireland had 68% possession and 73% of the territory. Mind boggling.

However, Allister Coetzee’s side made it count when it mattered. A big scrum, some well-timed tactical kicks, JP Pietersen’s try just before half-time and some inspired defensive moments from De Klerk got them over the line.

It was another harsh lesson for this young Irish squad, but Schmidt feels this encounter will hold them in good stead going forward:

“The last time I felt this similar disappointment was when we didn’t get the win against the All Blacks [in November 2013], when we had a similar lead. We came out and we won the Six Nations post that. 

“I think players learn from that. They think ‘hang on a minute, we can actually foot it.’

“You know, to be written off to the degree that we were before the tour probably galvanised the group to a degree but it didn’t do their confidence a lot of good. Thankfully we had some good experience interspersed amongst the younger players and that allowed them to get a bit of confidence and I think they demonstrated that. 

Unfortunately we were missing a little bit of experience today and we had very much a kind of patched together backline, particularly once Tiernan was hurt and in the end went off, because Keith Earls has not played at fullback a lot.

Joe Schmidt with Jared Payne Schmidt with injured fullback Jared Payne before the final Test. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“We were hoping that Jared might make it. Our fullback cover for the tour was Robbie and Jared and we lost them both unfortunately. 

“Simon Zebo wasn’t fit to tour, his knee wasn’t fit and even guys like Rob Kearney and Dave Kearney, they can both play there but they weren’t available. So it is what it is.

“To talk about those players really detracts from the wholehearted commitment and the learnings that we’ve gained by these young guys being thrust into an environment that’s relatively hostile.”

Schmidt’s Ireland future is still uncertain beyond next season with this current deal with the IRFU expiring in June 2017. He has been linked with the top job at the Highlanders in Super Rugby while All Blacks CEO Steve Tew confirmed this week that he is on the shortlist to replace Steve Hansen.

Schmidt’s talents are certainly in demand, but there is a hope that the performances of a clutch of these young players, and their potential, could sway him to stay on and bring Ireland through the 2019 World Cup.

“Yeah, look, you cannot fault the work ethic of these guys. It’s huge,” he agreed.

“I’d be lying if I thought that we were suddenly world beaters. I’m not going to claim that we’re looking to aim up and take over the world of rugby. We’re just going to try and roll our sleeves up and try to profit from the investment that the last three weeks has been, and we’ll see what happens.”

Three thrilling Tests. Three six-point results. The 14-man victory at Ellis Park will go down as one of the great days in Irish sport while the final quarter collapse in Johannesburg will join that dark pit of Irish sporting tragedies; a place where images of Michael Lynagh, Vincent Clerc and Ryan Crotty reside.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt has a call to make on his future. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Overall, considering the length of the season and the injury toll, this tour must be considered a success. In banking terms, this squad will return to Ireland very much in credit.

 “Yeah, if you’d said to me before we came here ‘look, there’ll be three six-point results and you’ll get one of them’, I would have grabbed it,” Schmidt agreed.  

“I’m not sure the players would have, because they are so committed to trying to justify the support they get. They sense the support that is out there. Even coming out of our hotel the amount of support that you get really does encourage to keep going, and they kept going.”

“I thought they did a super job, and I think they’ll learn from it, but you can’t spend too much time learning. You’ve got to get to the level of mastering very, very quickly in this environment because you don’t get too many windows to play Test rugby in a season and you’ve got to optimise every window you get.”

A 52-week campaign and 17 Test matches that stretched from an ill-fated World Cup through to a Six Nations championship and finally this three-Test series has finally come to an end. There have been plenty of casualties and farewells along the way.

So, what has Schmidt learned from what has been a hugely demanding 12-month examination?

“Yeah, it’s been tough, it’s been tough, because if you look at what we started the season with, if you count up the players that started that French Test, for example, when we were fully fit minus probably Jared Payne, and you look at the team that started today, you look at the five test caps that were earned on this tour and a number of other guys, like Luke Marshall, Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding, Jordi Murphy – who had a handful of Test caps – and the fact that they’ve come back into the game, and kids like Ultan Dillane and Finlay Bealham – it’s great that they’ve had those opportunities, because if it happens in 2019 that I’m involved or whoever is involved, we don’t want to be in the same situation where we’re so reliant on our real feature players.

“Now I can tell you that any team is reliant on feature players. Have a look at the Australia team that beat England [at the World Cup], take Matt Giteau and David Pocock and a few others out, it doesn’t take too much to tip the balance, because it is a fine balance.

Joe Schmidt with Ethel Normoyle Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“It’s a very touchy equilibrium between what can be best delivered and when you suddenly lose that experience and you become a little bit vulnerable.

“I didn’t think we showed too much vulnerability and I think that’s a credit to the players and what they’ve invested in the last three weeks, and hopefully that is something we can profit from in the future.”

And with that, Schmidt wrapped up his final chat with the  Irish media this season.

As he made his way down the corridor, one of the Irish press pack shouted ‘sign that new contract, will ya’. Schmidt looked back with a wry grin, inscrutable to the very last moment. Here’s hoping there’s more left to come.

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