It’s time to put best foot forward,says Schmidt

It’s time to put best foot forward,says Schmidt
Ireland’s Jean Kleyn laces up his boots at yesterday’s squad training in Carton House. Head coach Joe Schmidt says he likes the balance in the World Cup squad. Picture: Brendan Moran.

It is a well-balanced Ireland squad, assembled by Joe Schmidt in forensic detail, with the intention of negotiating a successful seven-week World Cup campaign.

Yet the head coach will head to Japan for his final campaign as Ireland boss guaranteeing only that the 31 players he has entrusted with the task will try to put their best feet forward.

Such are the paradoxes of coaching. For all the heart, soul, brainpower and effort that goes into providing the best platform for players to excel at the most important moment, there is actually little the person at the top of the command chain can control beyond his belief in their commitment to the cause.

A day after revealing his 31-man World Cup squad for Japan, Schmidt discussed his decision-making process and outlined the multiple variables at play.

Four years on from an injury-plagued campaign in England and Wales that ended with a quarter-final exit to Argentina, a World Cup on the other side of the planet presents different problems logistically and travelling with as much versatility and peak fitness in his existing ranks was the overriding criteria when selecting the players beyond his core of 15-20 regular contributors.

So, sayonara, for now at least, to Devin Toner, hampered by an ankle injury heading into pre-season, so too Will Addison, whose lack of gametime since January was a significant deterrent to his selection.

For Luke McGrath, who won the race with Kieran Marmion to serve as back-up to Conor Murray as the second scrum-half, it was a better kicking game that got the Leinster man on the plane rather than his Connacht rival.

No throwaway reasoning here, rather hours of analysis and assessment over eight weeks of pre-season training with the surviving 31 players all earning the right to carry Ireland’s hopes into the 2019 World Cup.

“I like the balance,” Schmidt said yesterday. “Inevitably it was tougher to do that this time because we didn’t feel we had the comfort of a 45-minute flight to get someone to Cardiff or an hour-five flight to get someone to London (in the event ofinjury).

“This time we feel like we have to have really good cover within the squad and I like the fact that I think our cover is pretty good.

“Now, you get two injuries in one position and you could be struggling but everyone knows they have got that same vulnerability. You pick an 18/13 (forwards/backs) split like some teams have or whether you are leaving out a player you have had a lot of time with like (New Zealand coach) Steve Hansen did... he has known Owen (Franks) in the Canterbury system.

I think any coach will tell you it is a tough day when you have to have those conversations. So for me the guys that we have got I know that they are going to be utterly committed to trying to get beyond the quarter-final stages.

And then came the kicker: “The most frustrating thing for me is that I can work as hard as I like but I can’t guarantee you anything but that we will try to put our best foot forward.”

Ireland 2019 have the opportunity to achieve what none of their predecessors managed and make it to the last four of the biggest tournament in the sport.

A chastening 57-15 defeat to a rampant England on August 24 was a rude awakening, however, to the world game’s evolution towards the possibilities of a dynamic power game as players of the size and ability of Maro Itoje, Billy Vunipola, Manu Tuilagi, and their “Kamikaze Kids” flankers Tom Curry and Sam Underhill trampled Ireland underfoot on the gain line and then carved them open in the backfield.

“You are trying to cover as many different ways of playing the game as possible because you are trying to exert pressure in as many ways as possible,” Schmidt added before referencing this Saturday’s final summer Test at home to Wales.

“The dynamic power game that some teams have, I don’t think that’s a shift. I mean that’s the Wales that we always knew. Wales in the last World Cup averaged 106kgs per man, and that’s gargantuan by our standards and they would be on Saturday as well physically.

“So we are used to coping against teams that are more physical than we are. But it can be attritional, it can be physically sapping for players. So we want to make sure we can physically compete, no matter what way our opponents play and at the same time we can impose a little bit of pressure on them by being able to mix up the way we play.”

Toner, Addison, and the others in the original 45-man squad now sent back to their provinces will be hoping they can still contribute to that effort if needed.

Schmidt, though, will not search for replacements elsewhere, again ruling out the possibility of call-ups for Racing 92’s former Munster duo Simon Zebo and Donnacha Ryan, when it was suggested they were match-fit and ready to go in an emergency.

“No. No. I’ve always tried to repeat the same message, that if we accept that in the pinnacle, in the biggest tournament that players get to play, that if we do take players from outside of Ireland then players are going to feel that ‘well, I can go and play for more money somewhere else.’

You say match fit, but I coached in the Top 14. I don’t think that the Top 14 players are as fit as the Pro14 players. I would believe that the players here are better conditioned; probably because they have to be because we don’t have the same size of squads or the same profile of player...

“...I think we’ve got to keep supporting the players who are on this island because that’s when our supporters get to see those players play, that’s when provinces can still supply the highest quality of rugby and stay competitive in Europe.

“Otherwise if we start to dilute that player quality I think it’s a real risk for us because we don’t have the same economy of scale in Ireland as they do in the French competition and the same with thePremiership.

“So it’s admirable that players stay here for substantially less money so that they can pull on a green jersey, and when they pull it on, it’s very, very seldom that they don’t give it incredibly good service.”


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