Cautious Joe Schmidt takes time-out as provinces reclaim stars

It should be apparent by now Joe Schmidt takes nothing for granted.

It is a trait he instilled in his players over the last three years as national team boss and yet as influential as he is in Irish rugby he cannot wrap the players up and keep them in Ireland camp until the RBS 6 Nations.

Like an anxious parent packing a child off to the Gaeltacht to improve their Irish, it will have been with a heavy heart the head coach waved his squad off back to their provinces on Sunday lunchtime. After a month in their company and the great strides they made in that time, placing them in the care of others and hoping they return unbroken in late January for the Championship is one of the tougher elements of the job.

What is more, it prevents Schmidt from being as optimistic as he might looking ahead to Ireland’s bid to win back the Six Nations title from England following an impressive November’s work.

The dust has barely settled on a magnificent international window and yet provincial coaches will be relishing the return of their prime assets to prepare for the most critical, attritional block in their seasons. With four rounds of Champions Cup action and two Guinness PRO12 interprovincial derbies to squeeze in, there is a minefield of possibilities for Schmidt’s players that could swing Irish hopes for a third title in four seasons under his command.

So, after a month in which history has been made by Rory Best and his team in beating New Zealand for the first time and then defeating Australia to become the first northern hemisphere side to compile victories over each of the three southern hemisphere giants in a calendar year since 2003, there are still no bold predictions from the Ireland head coach.

England boss Eddie Jones is already relishing the defeat of his fellow Australians at Twickenham next week but braggadocio is not for Schmidt and we should be grateful for that. That caution accompanies every statement and danger for Ireland lies at the next corner, in this case Scotland at Murrayfield on February 4, may be frustrating to hear. Yet it is what has brought the best out of the men in green on his watch and given the results that have tended to follow there is no reason for him to abandon that course now.

Which is why when Schmidt was asked what the future held for his players heading into the Six Nations he replied: “Look, they can probably enjoy the night and reflect on performances they’ve really had to roll their sleeves up and earn,” but, “I wouldn’t be great at speculating.

“In the end, you always start again when you get them back. We don’t have them again for two months. I know it’s one of the frustrations when I came into this job; there was such a continuity coaching club or provincial rugby where, week to week, you could plot progress, you could work with individuals, you could know where you were looking to head but, inevitably when you get them back in together in that last week in January, there is going to (have to) be a lot of improvement.”

On the eve of the last Six Nations, with the injury- ravaged collapse to Argentina at the previous October’s World Cup quarter-final still painfully raw, Schmidt surveyed the casualty list, the retirement of Paul O’Connell and a schedule that featured Wales at home, France in Paris and England at Twickenham in the first three games.He declared he would consider a top-three finish a success for his back-to-back champions and third was where Ireland finished following a draw with the Welsh, two defeats on the road and wins over the Scots and Italians in Dublin.

The opening Test win at Newlands in Cape Town in June brought a famous first international victory on South African soil, made all the more remarkable by a still high injury toll and the first-quarter sending-off of CJ Stander, but was followed by a summer series that got away to a declining Springboks.

It did not bode well for an autumn that would bring two games against the world champion All Blacks, swiftly followed by the third-ranked Wallabies. Nervous eyes were being thrown in the direction of the world rankings and next May’s 2019 World Cup draw where a run of defeats could have sent Ireland spiralling out of the top eight and facing a pool of death in Japan three years from now.

Yet the new season has brought plenty of cheer. First Schmidt turned his back on interest from Super Rugby franchises in his native New Zealand and committed to lead Ireland into Japan 2019 and then his players only went and beat the All Blacks in Chicago. After that it has been all gravy.

Ireland may have failed to beat New Zealand a second time when the All Blacks came to Dublin to exact revenge and showed they were perfectly capable of mixing brilliance with brute force, but for Schmidt’s side to have emerged from the two games with the best side in the world only a point behind on an aggregate of 50-49 speaks volumes for the growing confidence and squad depth being developed.

There were 39 players used this month, including a completely fresh starting XV seven days after the miracle of Soldier Field which put Canada to the sword with a matchday squad featuring eight new caps.

Of the 19 Test debutants blooded this year, Tadhg Furlong has inherited Mike Ross’s number three jersey and emerged as the cornerstone for the next generation, CJ Stander is proving himself to be a world-class back-row ball carrier and alongside him Josh van der Flier has been a revelation while in Ultan Dillane there is a potential second-row pairing with Iain Henderson to see Ireland through to 2023 at least.

The list goes on with developing young talent such as versatile back row Jack O’Donoghue, fly-half Joey Carbery and centre Garry Ringrose all looking perfectly at ease on the international stage this month.

To have beaten teams ranked first and third in the world this month while missing regular starters in key positions is an encouraging sign of things to come and Schmidt is clearly better equipped for the upcoming Championship than he was a year ago to deal with the injury crises that scuppered World Cup ambitions and denied the Irish a decent tilt at a hat-trick of Six Nations titles. But. There is always a “but”.

“But you can’t control the circumstances between now and then. Right now I think we are better equipped but when we get to Scotland I am not sure what the injury situation will be, sometimes you are affected by the confidence of European form or PRO12 form, the provincial players that come in and make up the side, so two months is a long gap and so for us ... there is not a lot of time to gel everyone back together after a couple of months apart.”

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