Joe Schmidt hopes he will be able to look back on a disappointing Guinness Six Nations campaign as a significant building block towards a successful World Cup in Japan.
Following a 25-7 defeat to Grand Slam winners Wales in Cardiff on Saturday, Ireland finished the 2019 championship — Schmidt’s sixth and last before stepping down as head coach after this autumn’s World Cup — in third place behind runners-up England.
It was far from the fairytale ending supporters had hoped for a coach who delivered three Six Nations titles, including last year’s Grand Slam, and Schmidt will look back on humbling losses to England at home in the opening round and in Wales on Saturday as his team performed well below the standards set in previous years.
He also knows that Ireland had to contend with numerous injuries that meant he used 36 players across the tournament, a number only topped by the 38 deployed during the post-2015 World Cup campaign.
Of those used this time around, many such as Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton came into the tournament on the back of injuries and those challenges allow Schmidt to take some positives from this season’s Six Nations, as he looks ahead to the World Cup, which begins with a pool game against Scotland on September 22.
The Ireland coach had accepted pre-tournament there had been a risk such defeats could undo the momentum gathered during a stellar 2018 and make life more difficult going into the World Cup. Asked to return to that point in the wake of Saturday’s loss, Schmidt said: “There is a risk and at the same time there is a responsibility to take a risk and we took a risk through the championship and we took risks putting different guys in and trying to find out a little bit about guys.
“Tadhg [Beirne], for example, hasn’t played a lot at all and he got back and he played that one game (against Wales) and at the same time some of the risk was forced on us because we lost Iain Henderson last week; but we were pretty happy with some of the things Tadhg did, and it allows us to build forward on the back of that.
“I think getting Kieran Marmion back was really positive for us. Earlier in the tournament, we got to look at a number of players, so you know if we didn’t take that risk and I don’t think we did in 2015 and people will be quick to point out 2015 when we lost five of our very best senior players that there wasn’t much sympathy for not performing in the quarter-final, so I guess one of the things is that in trying to mitigate that, you have to risk something somewhere else.
“So, at the same time, there is no way we wanted to come here and lose and we didn’t want to lose at home to England either, so we are hurting. It is a hollow feeling when you lose a game like that and it is frustrating, but if, in hindsight, in November, we can say, well ‘I am glad we did and I am glad we tried to build and widen and lay a foundation’ then, you know, we have three of the last five of these things and we got that Grand Slam last year.”