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Schmidt: 'This year hasn't been great, but Ireland are in a really good place'

The New Zealander also lamented the shorter turnaround the team had to manage between their final pool game and the quarter-final.

Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

AS HE TRIED to come to terms with what had turned out to be a bitterly disappointing final match as Ireland head coach, Joe Schmidt insisted the squad are in a good place to recover from yet another World Cup quarter-final exit.

Schmidt had spent the last four years fine-tuning his team towards finally reaching the World Cup semi-finals, but against a scintillating New Zealand team, they were absolutely filleted in Tokyo, conceding seven tries in a 40-14 defeat.

Ireland face into a long winter as they attempt to make sense of this loss, and when they regroup for next year’s Six Nations, it will be Andy Farrell, Schmidt’s defence coach since 2016, stepping into the top job.

“I think they’re in a really good place. I know this year hasn’t been great, but I think a lot of teams, when they’ve had a really big year, do unfortunately have a little bit of a drop off,” Schmidt told ITV.

The New Zealander also lamented the shorter turnaround Ireland had to manage between their final pool game and the quarter-final. New Zealand had an extended run-in as their last pool game against Italy was cancelled as a result of Typhoon Hagibis.

“I just felt if we had another couple of days to maybe prepare, we might have been a little bit better. We had two pretty short trainings with guys going in and out because they had niggles, and weren’t too sure about exactly who we would have out on the pitch on Saturday. Even on Thursday, we were trying to just sort that out. 

joe-schmidt-during-the-post-match-press-conference Schmidt speaks alongside captain Rory Best after the game. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“So it’s never great when you are going into such a big game with uncertainty, but we created our own uncertainty by not making the most of field position and opportunity when we did create those chances.”

Schmidt is not the only key figure stepping away, with veteran captain Rory Best now retired. Others may decide to follow suit. Rob Kearney will be 37 by the time the next World Cup rolls around in 2023, while Johnny Sexton will be 38. And while Schmidt has transformed Irish rugby during his six years in charge, his two World Cup campaigns will remain a huge source of frustration.

“It is heartbreaking, because I’ve lived this job for the last six and a half years,” Schmidt added.

All I can do is work as hard as I can and try to help the players develop as best they can, and try to build the collective as strong as it can be. So it is disappointing to finish on a note that doesn’t represent how, I believe, how far we’ve come. We’ve scaled a number of challenges, this is the only one we haven’t. Andy Farrell, at least he’ll have something to aim up for in four years time and I’m sure he’ll do a super job.” 

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Even if Farrell can keep the bulk of this squad together for the immediate future, he will need to begin a changing of the guard in a bid to freshen up a team who have often looked painfully predictable over the past 12 months.

They struggled to match the intensity of the All Blacks in the opening stages in Tokyo, while their unforced error count was simply unacceptable. Schmidt’s team selection will also come into question following his admission that some players carried knocks going into the game, although he still left impact players sitting on the bench until deep into the second half as his team were being ripped to shreds.

“Any defeat in a quarter-final, whether its one point or the 30-odd points that it was out there today, is massively disappointing,” Schmidt said.

“We’re a little bit glued together after last week. We had quite a few guys with niggles and so we kind of tried to keep that pretty quiet and build our way into the game, and we were kind of hoping to get a really good start, because on the back of that we’d get a bit of confidence.

“I think everyone was really aware of that [being punished if they coughed up cheap possession] and there’s a number of players who are disappointed, who have come in, and I don’t ever want a player apologising for a performance, because I know how hard they worked and how they threw themselves into what they knew was going to be a really tough test, without guys quite having a full week to prepare themselves.

“But there are no excuses, we’ve got to be able to consolidate a performance that doesn’t have those errors, particularly against the number one side in the tournament. Because no matter what happens, you can’t not capitalise on the opportunities you create.

“Even the third try they got, Keith Earls is on a great trail line, there’s a nice big gap for him, and we didn’t quite play it. Instead, we kind of collided, the ball bounced loose and they shot away and scored. There was a few tries like that that were really disappointing, because it gave them the breathing space that allowed them to play, and that’s exactly what we didn’t want to offer them.”

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