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Dublin: 13 °C Monday 14 October, 2019

Six Nations wash-out shows human side of Schmidt

The outgoing head coach won’t tear up his gameplan and start anew, so Ireland will have to fight their way out of this corner.

“We’d certainly encourage the genuine supporter not to lose faith in the team.”

FOR THOSE WHO are truly devout in the cult of the coach, belief remains unshaken and the heretics concerned by Ireland’s Six Nations wash-out must be speaking in tongues.

A common response during Ireland’s seven-week struggle was that it’s better to see all this unpleasantness play out now, rather than at the World Cup.

When any nation was ever offered a straight choice between the two is anyone’s guess.

Joe Schmidt Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

A separate theory involves the most blindly robust faith and a belief that Joe Schmidt must surely be holding back his most prized powerplays for September and October. Perhaps it will remain a divine mystery until World Cup quarter-final weekend.

For now, all we can judge Ireland by is their performance over the past seven weeks and the inescapable shadow of their brilliant 2018.

Having beaten New Zealand for a second time, Ireland were second in the world and chasing first, they had every right to have a swagger about them moving into the new international season. Yet Ireland’s grand plan seemed to unravel as soon as they got that first punch in the mouth.

From the immediate post-match reaction all the way to Stuart Lancaster’s view yesterday, most are in agreement that the opening day humbling at home to England put Ireland out of kilter. But the most worrying thing was how – save for 60 minutes against a French side who are also far from their best – they never really recovered.

It’s concerning enough that this Ireland side are unable to overturn half-time leads, but what sort of brittle confidence exists in a side who is undermined and eaten away by a six-week old loss?  Is there no way back in the World Cup if Scotland find a way to win in Yokohama?

Ireland’s Conor Murray Rory Best James Ryan Jordan Larmour and Sean O'Brien Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

We doubt there is any lack of confidence or steel about the determination and character of Ireland’s playing group. But they have looked incredibly uncertain about their purpose over the course of the Six Nations.

While he can be depicted as infallible at times, Schmidt made errors which extended far beneath the Cardiff roof – though playing in warm, humid conditions with a deafening home support would not have been the worst preparation for Japan.

From thrusting Robbie Henshaw back to fullback after molding him to be a gainline-making centre, to letting Sean Cronin take the fall for the performance in Rome while allowing others to play their way into form, there are clearly matters of man-management and judgement which could form a list of ‘work-ons’ for the outgoing coach.

The Kiwi doesn’t tell the media if he’s mulling areas of improvement in his own game, however. His infamous attention to detail is always focused on his players. It’s an approach that remains consistent when things are going well for his Ireland team and he was noticeably absent from on-field celebrations on the three occasions when Ireland had a trophy to parade.

He will look to his players now too.

Having Henshaw in midfield will surely make a difference. A fit Dan Leavy too. Devin Toner’s presence and calm experience at the line-out was for years a central tenet of Ireland’s pack and the plays they spring from it.

Most of all, Schmidt will hope Johnny Sexton can rediscover the form he showed before entering the Six Nations after a month out injured and without a competitive minute of rugby under his belt.

Jonathan Sexton dejected after the game Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Schmidt chose to play him despite any doubts over his form or fitness, because the out-half has been the constant of all his success since leaving Clermont — from the Heineken Cup final comeback under the Cardiff roof in 2011 to the home win over the All Blacks which feels so much longer than four months ago.

With six months to run before the defining period of the World Cup, and far less actual preparation time, the head coach is not going to overhaul Ireland’s gameplan or tear up his favoured team-sheet, because he has been poring over this World Cup plan since the last one.

So Ireland will have to deliver more of the same, only better.

“There aren’t too many weeks where I don’t get a letter from somebody saying I should be picking this player or trying to do this in the game,” Schmidt said ahead of the win over Scotland this year.

“And that’s when we’re winning. When we lose, you expect three letters. A lot of people describe how we’re playing and what Plan A, B or C is.

We have a very varied game. We play strong off set-piece, we have a varied kicking and attacking game and we try to vary our defensive game.

“I’ll leave them to do their analysis and we’ll do ours and try to keep improving.”

Little over a month on and Schmidt sat in Cardiff attempting to spin a third-place finish into a positive while Warren Gatland celebrated another Grand Slam and the number two-ranking that came with it.  Things had not improved.

Ireland players dejected after the game Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Schmidt will depart the job at the end of the year having greatly increased Ireland’s standing in world rugby. As a man who built his reputation on details and a scientific approach, Schmidt more than anyone will know that blind faith alone won’t sustain the growth and iron out the creases so evident throughout the Championship.

It will take more than fresh set of powerplays. There is work to be done, mysteries to unravel and contingencies to be examined if Ireland are to break new ground at the World Cup.

Originally published at 14.16

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Sean Farrell

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