THERE IS AN odd sense of preamble about Ireland’s forthcoming November Test against Argentina.
In years gone by, Irish teams might have looked on a match just like this as doubly important given that the oncoming All Blacks would ordinarily promise a humbling experience for all in Lansdowne Road.
It’s different these days. Standards and expectations are sky-high and the world is waiting to see how the back-to-back world champions fare against the second-ranked team in the game.
Recent experience of Argentina feeds into the before-the-lord-mayor’s-show feel. For all the fire and fury of the four World Cup meetings with the Albiceleste, the Pumas have never won in Dublin and the gap – at least in a November setting - only appears to be getting wider.
So the point is put to Schmidt that it would be only human were players to sneak a peek ahead at the big occasion set for 17 November.
‘Yeah,” sighs the Kiwi, “they’re conditioned to a degree that they’re not that human.
“Because one of the dangers that they understand fully is: any look that far ahead (and) they compromise what they deliver this weekend. And then next week they’re really looking forward to the game but watching it from the stands.
“That’s not where they’re want to be. They want to have their boots on and they want to be right in amongst it and their best opportunity to do that, on the back of some really good performances last week, is to make sure their performances are very similar — making sure that they are accurate, they’re doing a good job for the team.
“If we can get that, we know we’re going to be competitive. If we’re competitive, we find that the Aviva is a fantastic place to play for us.”
The big house will be rocking eight days from now, that’s for sure. And this weekend’s crowd will be warmed up by what is almost a first-choice Ireland XV, with the tantalising addition of Jordan Larmour to take advantage of the space Argentina have tended to offer in these windows. The name of the opponent, however, inevitably tilts thoughts to Ireland’s big goal next year, making the last four at Japan 2019, a goal scuppered by Argentina three times over the last five World Cups.
The two Tests on the horizon will provide a telling barometer of Ireland’s approach run to the defining tournament. However, just as he demands of his players, Schmidt prefers to linger on the here and now. Not only game-to-game, but minute-to-minute and play-to-play within those games.
“Where we are right now, it will tell us a lot,” says Schmidt, “I think regardless of what happens in the next 10 days, everything is a benchmark, and within a game there are a number of benchmarks, positionally, tactically and technically.
“We’re going to be challenged in a different way from the way Italy challenged us. In particular, this is our first southern hemisphere game of this series and you saw in Australia, the way that southern hemisphere rugby is played on the back of Super Rugby is worth a fair bit of freedom.
“The Argentines would probably be, to a degree, a little bit more combative at the ruck than some of the other teams who tend to let a fair few rucks go and then suddenly they’ll have a crack and turn you over. So we’re going to have to really be on our mettle otherwise guys like (Agustin) Creevy and (Pablo) Matera will get on that ball very quickly.”
Matera, many will remember, was one of a few root causes for Ireland’s World Cup heartbreak in 2015. It is a match that Schmidt has refused to let slip idly out of his memory bank as he pushes to improve his team, yet Saturday’s meeting with a Puma outfit nearing the end of a long Southern Hemisphere season bears little resemblance to that miserable day of Argentine magic in Cardiff.
‘Well, our number 10 has trained all week. He hasn’t had a 20-minute intro to run the team and started six games in the previous 12 months,” Schmidt offers as a succinct differentiator, referring to Ian Madigan’s late call to start after Johnny Sexton’s succumbed to injury sustained against France a week earlier.
It didn’t stop at Sexton’s knock. Sean O’Brien was suspended, Paul O’Connell’s career was over (though he held out hope of playing for Toulon) and Peter O’Mahony was set for a long, long stint on the sidelines.
The knock-on effect of losing the individual skill-sets of these players was that their character and leadership was also sorely missed.
Along with an impressive depth of talent cultivated for green jerseys, Schmidt has endeavoured to make every player comfortable when in a position to lead within the team.
“There are guys who have a grounded opinion of themselves, but they feel solid about their own confidence and they don’t need to rely on somebody else to give them that confidence to go into the game.
“You’d like to think that that allows us to be a little bit more connected and a little bit more inter-reliant than individual-reliant.
“We’ve got to have that inter-reliance because we can’t afford to gauge our level of confidence based on ‘what Seanie does’.
“It’s almost a human factor in trying to coordinate a group of people. Inevitably people lead, they’ve led in the past and by the experiences they’ve accumulated. Then by the nature of other people they’re looking for someone to lead.
“This group hopefully will be absolutely grounded in their own role and the demands that are going to be very tough to manage on Saturday. You’d hope also that they’ll be fully confident in what they can deliver at the same time.”
As a measure of that familiarity with the detail of a player’s role, Schmidt points to the occasions when he has been forced to make late changes to his team and wins have still been delivered.
There are examples from both sides of the last World Cup. From Dan Tuohy stepping in when O’Connell was ill ahead of a Six Nations clash with Scotland, to Rhys Ruddock’s astounding display against South Africa after Chris Henry’s mini-stroke. Post-World Cup, there was the famous promotion for O’Mahony when Jamie Heaslip pulled up in his last ever warm-up and, in this fixture last year, Chris Farrell hopped in when Robbie Henshaw picked up a knock in training.
Those winning returns from players who were not given ideal preparation is the kind of standard Schmidt is looking for. There are many others, though.
“I’m hoping that we can benchmark a few things on Saturday and then we’ll just shake ourselves down a bit, recover on the Sunday and build again on the Monday and we’ll do the same thing the following week…”
“The players are incredibly excited about what’s coming up and they’re nervous about Argentina and how good they are.
“So there’s a bit of anxiety floating around which is not necessarily the worst thing.”
Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud