Joe Schmidt has revealed Ireland’s 2019 Six Nations title defence took second place in priority to this autumn’s bid for a first World Cup semi-final place.
The head coach steps down from the role at the end of the World Cup in Japan after six-and-a-half years, with the squad leaving for Tokyo on Wednesday for Ireland’s opening game in Pool A in 13 days’ time against Scotland in Yokohama.
Having signed off on Ireland’s summer preparations with a 19-10 win over Wales in Dublin on Saturday, Schmidt said he had strayed from his usual Six Nations approach last season in order to build squad depth for the World Cup and that had cost them the title they had won 12 months earlier with a Grand Slam.
An opening loss to England in the Aviva Stadium and last-day defeat in Wales undid the momentum of a glorious 2018 which saw them win the Grand Slam, a Test series in Australia and record a historic first home win over New Zealand.
Yet for Schmidt, 53, it will be a necessary sacrifice if Ireland return to the peak of their powers in Japan.
He was talking about veteran full-back Rob Kearney’s try-scoring performance against Wales, when Ireland as a collective produced their best display of the four-Test summer series to banish the ghosts of a terrible 57-15 defeat to England at Twickenham two weeks earlier and deliver an ideal springboard into the pool campaign against Scotland, Japan, Russia and Samoa.
“The game we lost here (to England) in the Six Nations, Rob wasn’t playing and we were experimenting (with Robbie Henshaw at full-back) and we experimented a bit during the Six Nations and we wouldn’t normally do that,” Schmidt said.
“But I said at the time, we’d won three of the five Six Nations, we didn’t need another one of those. We need a semi-final in this big competition coming up. If you try to chase everything, I don’t know if you’ve done too much farming but if you try to chase the whole herd all you end up is chasing. If you corral things and decide where your priorities are, I think you give yourself a better chance.”
Schmidt will leave nothing to chance in that bid to reach the last four, first needing to negotiate the pool before a quarter-final against either New Zealand or South Africa. While Ireland have beaten them both in recent years, the size of the task is such that he chose to frame his ambition of a semi-final place as a dream rather than a goal.
“It’s funny, while I might say that, I will be looking at Scotland. You’ve got to have a look at Japan (six days later), as a coach but certainly the players, they will have no interest in Japan or anything else.
“If we can beat Scotland, there’s so much riding on that game and they know the same thing, and they’re such a good side. I don’t want to go through their team if you want to test me on the 31, and it’s not just their team. It’s their team behind the team. I know Gregor Townsend well and I’ve got massive respect for him. I think he’s a smart coach and on the back of that, they’re going to be a huge challenge.
“So, yes, we’d love to make that semi-final and I don’t set goals. So it’s not even a goal, it’s a dream I have that I’d love to see come to fruition but it will all be about what happens in two weeks’ time.” If it does come to fruition it will be the greatest achievement in Irish rugby history and a masterstroke for Schmidt’s big-picture planning but the head coach also admitted on Saturday that not everything has been timed to perfection.
Circumstances beyond his control forced him to bring forward the announcement of his decision to turn down a new IRFU contract offer beyond the World Cup, the news coming out at the end of last autumn’s international window that he would be stepping down as head coach when his current deal is up this November.
“When I did it, it wasn’t the best time immediately after the November series but I didn’t want it to be an ongoing saga,” he said.
“One of the negatives about having a very consistently performing (coaching) team is that people start coming in and start picking people out of your environment because they want to get some of them.
“Some of that pressure was coming on, some of the coaches had very good offers from elsewhere and I just feel there’s a time to give the mantle to them. Otherwise, you’re standing in the way of their progress and, if they move away and you finally finish you have to kind of build things up from the bottom again.”