DONAL LENIHAN: Many landmines for Irish rugby on the road from here to Japan

So now we know. 

Then again, we had suspected for some time that Joe Schmidt would vacate his role as Irish head coach on completion of Ireland’s 2019 World Cup campaign in Japan.

As always with Joe, he stuck to his original plan of letting the IRFU know of his intentions once the November internationals were over. By 9am on Monday morning, he did just that.

Given his most important body of work has yet to be completed — making it to the last four and beyond at a World Cup tournament — I have no intention just yet of focusing on his departure and the magnificent legacy he will leave behind in November 2019. There is plenty of time for that.

What I will say is that, in Andy Farrell, the IRFU have chosen wisely as Schmidt’s replacement. Farrell’s appointment not only guarantees continuity within the management structure, but also contributes to a seamless transition, given that Farrell has been part and parcel of the national set-up since the tour of South Africa in 2016.

Most importantly, he has the respect of all within the group, from the players and his fellow management personnel, right through to those tasked with running affairs behind the scene in Irish rugby headquarters.

In the real world of professional sport, knowing in advance that a head coach is departing the scene in the near future isn’t ideal.

However, in this case, I would back Schmidt to handle that challenge better than most.

The players will appreciate that they only have a finite amount of time to benefit from his vast well of coaching knowledge, while Schmidt’s work ethic is such that he will leave no stone unturned in his quest to reach a first ever World Cup semi-final.

Knowing Schmidt, he has already parked his decision to leave and is focusing his attention on what is going to prove an extremely challenging Six Nations campaign. 

Normally, hosting England and France in Dublin works well for us, but given the success both Scotland and Wales enjoyed over the last few weeks, those trips to Edinburgh and Cardiff will also be fraught with danger.

It’s not all that long ago when a win for one of the home nations over Southern Hemisphere opposition was a cause of celebration for all and sundry, further evidence that we could compete and that the gap was closing.

Those wins used to be sporadic and due, in many cases, to the shortcomings of the visitors on the back of a long season rather than any brilliance on the part of the home side. 

Yet, on perusing last Sunday’s papers, an amazing sequence of results shone like a beacon: England 37 Australia 18; Scotland 14 Argentina 9; Wales 20 South Africa 11. 

On the back of Ireland’s 16-9 win over New Zealand the previous week, those results will trigger serious reviews and contemplation among our southern rivals over the next few months.

As ever with the French, they only served to muddy the waters after an incredible 14-21 defeat at the hands of Fiji at the Stade de France, which has left them in disarray. Having shown major signs of improvement over the course of this year, not least on the summer tour of New Zealand, they finished on a very low point. 

That chaotic state of affairs is nothing new to them and could result in another stellar World Cup from Les Bleus next year. Remember in 2011, when they lost to Tonga at the pool stage, before bouncing back to push the hosts New Zealand in a final they could so easily have won? I gave up trying to work the French out years ago.

What last weekend highlighted forcibly is that any notion of a stroll in the park for Schmidt’s men in the Six Nations — on the back of a glorious year that produced 11 wins from 12 Tests played — is off the mark. That will only serve to make the challenge of retaining their title even better.

It really has been a remarkable year of achievement for Irish rugby, a fact recognised across the board at World Rugby’s annual awards ceremony in Monte Carlo last Sunday in front of the game’s leading lights. Even that one defeat — against Australia in the opening test of a three-match series in Brisbane last June — involved an Irish side showing several changes from the Grand-Slam-winning team. 

Joey Carbery was handed the reins at out-half from the outset of that test. Jack McGrath, John Ryan and Rob Herring were parachuted into the front row when the Grand Slam winning unit of Cian Healy, Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong were rested, while Jordi Murphy started ahead of Dan Leavy. To recover from that defeat and win the series 2-1 while at the same time exposing the wider squad to test experience Down Under was a significant step forward.

Genius and all that he is, Schmidt cannot control the narrative outside the camp, but rest assured that by the time he has finished analysing the respective November performances of his Six Nations opponents, he will have found enough to bring his charges back down to earth as he maps out the challenges the squad will face in that tournament.

Eddie Jones and England had a very productive month, with injury-enforced additions to his side — such as Mark Wilson at No 8 and powerful winger Joe Cokanasiga — increasing his depth. Ireland open their campaign against the English in Dublin in what will prove an explosive start to our campaign.

The Scottish game in Edinburgh carries added significance, given that we play them in our opening pool game at the World Cup in Tokyo, while under Warren Gatland, Wales have always performed against Ireland in Cardiff.

They went unbeaten in a November series for the first time, with notable wins over Australia and South Africa leading Rassie Erasmus to label them the “silent assassins of world rugby”, flying somewhat under the radar, having won 10 of their 12 tests this year.

The one stain on the November window has to be a series of baffling decisions from officials, with England’s Owen Farrell the main benefactor. Just like his father, he is an unbelievable competitor and it’s that incredible drive and will to win that resulted in him making so many game-defining, tackles.

However, two of those, at crucial times in the games against South Africa and Australia, were clearly illegal, but somehow escaped sanction. With all the conferences and get-togethers the top officials attend, surely a level of consistency across the board shouldn’t be that hard to achieve. After all, it’s not as if the referee is operating in isolation. He has two assistants running the line with sufficient powers to make an impact, along with a TMO with the technology and time to get things right.

While there has been a clear and welcome move over the course of the last month to wrest control of games out of the television production van and back onto the field of play, surely the areas of adjudication that the TMO is still active in, namely acts of foul play and providing support for the referee with decision-making regarding a try/no try call, should result in the right call being made.

You can be sure that Schmidt will demand improvements from his players after reviewing Ireland’s four games over the last month. It’s not asking too much of those in charge of appointing the officials to demand similar improvements.


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