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Friday 3 February 2023 Dublin: 12°C
Billy Stickland/INPHO Ireland’s head coach Joe Schmidt with Jonathan Sexton.
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'He sees the blueprint for rugby success the same way the rest of us read a menu'
Simon Hick unravels the genius of Ireland head coach, Joe Schmidt.

THE PROBLEM WITH Ireland getting so many injuries at once, according to Shane Horgan, is not just the loss of great players, its that those who come in from the cold have to immediately adapt to the intensity of a World Cup environment while also getting their heads around tactics, calls, video analysis and the sudden pressure of being thrust centre stage.

The one theme that’s remained constant throughout Joe Schmidt’s coaching career, however, is his ability to get all 15 players, and those coming off the bench, performing at, or close to, their full potential.

When you think of the variety of egos, family backgrounds, dispositions, age profiles and talent levels in a rugby squad, that is perhaps his most remarkable trick of all.

On Sunday, Ireland put together the best squad performance in our history. We may not have quite as talented a starting XV as in 2009 or 2007, but the ability to cope with departures is far beyond anything we’ve seen before.

Reacting to circumstances and thinking our way through games has now become our greatest strength. Passion helps Ireland with their manic style of play, but adaptation is why they win so many tight games.

Schmidt leaves most of the motivational speeches to Paul O’Connell, as he did on Sunday. He often lets the forwards coaches or defence coaches dispense advice at half time (think of Sexton and Greg Feek in the 2011 Heineken Cup Final).

He is rarely seen exhorting his players from the touchline (the most we got on Sunday was an almost silent ‘come on Tommy, come on Tommy’ just as Bowe passed to Earls in the first half) or reacting to individual errors.

Players fear him in the Monday morning sessions, not because of the hair dryer treatment, but because of the honesty about to come their way. There are no stories of how he helped a troubled player unlock his true potential. There are no flawed genius heart-to-heart narratives in Joe’s coaching CV.

The key to the New Zealander’s career, it seems, is the lack of mystery. He is, above all, the master of clarity. He doesn’t see any puzzle as to why the best teams win. He sees the blueprint for rugby success the same way the rest of us read a menu and know what we want to eat.

If you put yourself in the head of a player with a club or country or county that hasn’t succeeded, all they see elsewhere is mystery. Why do Kilkenny keep playing well in All Ireland finals? How did Alex Ferguson win Premier Leagues even in years when he didn’t have the best players? How did Wales beat England with all those injuries?

In sport, nerves usually come from mystery. Players fear cup finals and big occasions because they don’t know how they’re going to play, how the opposition will play, or what the result will be. They don’t know if their dodgy left-to-right pass will let them down or if their decision making will hold up under pressure.

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Joe Schmidt and Jamie Heaslip Dan Sheridan / INPHO Head coach Joe Schmidt and Jamie Heaslip before the France game. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Schmidt, Simon Easterby, Mervyn Murphy, Greg Feek, Richie Murphy and Les Kiss, we now know, replace that fear with information and preparation. Specific, detailed, relevant information. Information that solves problems and demystifies the whole show. If you know exactly what you have to do and how to do it, and it’s within your capabilities, then what’s to fear?

This group have now taken many of the elements of bad luck out of games. The injuries suffered on Sunday were all less relevant because the players were so focused on the next task they didn’t have time to dwell on ill luck.

Either way, Ireland’s training will be hampered this week. The loss of strong characters around the camp will be felt too. The realisation that Argentina are more skilful, better coached and more confident than France will also be sinking in. Given those factors, and the injuries, this is now a 50/50 game.

The confidence in Ireland will remain steadfast, however, because these days there’s almost a guarantee of a performance, irrespective of what’s thrown at them. Under Joe, rolling with the punches has become a science.

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