Ireland’s prospects and reasons for optimism can be summed up in two words: Joe Schmidt.
The form and fortunes of the national team have oscillated from the sublime to the ridiculous since the Grand Slam-winning season five years ago but early indications suggest that the man to deliver clarity, stability, much-needed consistency and a true reflection of the talent available to the national squad is the former Leinster coach.
His influence is such that without his elevation to the top job, Brian O’Driscoll would have called time on his remarkable career after the Lions tour last July.
If that experience has left him with some unexpected scars, one hopes that he will now finish on his terms and in a manner fitting his unprecedented contribution to the game.
Ireland finish their international campaign at the Stade de France on March 15, four days shy of the 14th anniversary of that famous hat-trick which announced O’Driscoll’s arrival to the rugby world.
That Ireland have failed to win in Paris since offers the perfect stage for him to sign off.
One of the big questions facing Schmidt on his inaugural Six Nations is how he deals with the O’Driscoll issue. Does he play him in every match or does he use at least one of the games, possibly the Italian encounter in Dublin, to give a start to the former Irish captain’s heir apparent, Robbie Henshaw? That is one of many fascinating decisions facing the new man over the course of the campaign.
The one thing we can say with certainty is that Schmidt will not shy away from making those big calls. What interests me is the fact that all who have worked under him have been captivated by his forensic eye, his attention to detail, his ability to challenge even the most experienced of players and his ability to identify and exploit vulnerability in the opposition, a vulnerability few had recognised existed in the first place.
The one caveat is his inexperience as an international coach, given the different dynamics that pertain when preparing a team for international duty compared to working week in, week out with a club side.
From that perspective, the November window was highly instructive for the New Zealander. Coaches have to learn to prioritise. Warren Gatland articulated the point in a recent interview with The Irish Times: “When you’re together and you’ve a game next week, you’re thinking: ‘I’ve got to prioritise about the information I’m trying to get through and what are the important changes I want to make, because I can’t do them all at once.’ It’s a process.”
No surprise then that when Schmidt started on his journey last November, he surrounded himself with players who knew and understood his methods in Leinster. Gatland choose a similar route in his first international as Welsh coach in the opening game of the 2008 Six Nations, starting 13 players from The Ospreys due primarily to the familiarity and understanding that brings, as he set out to change the way the national side played.
The next challenge facing the new coach was to get players from Munster, Ulster and Connacht to buy into his methods, the most important being Paul O’Connell.
The obvious choice as Ireland’s captain for the 2015 World Cup, O’Connell has to be at one with what Schmidt is trying to achieve. The best way of going about that is to capture his imagination. O’Connell needs to be challenged, not easy when you’ve celebrated your 34th birthday and have three Lions tours under your belt, yet that is exactly what’s happening. O’Connell has a voracious appetite for knowledge and information and Schmidt is the right man in the right place for the big second row at this stage of his career.
The biggest lesson for Schmidt from his opening three tests against Samoa, Australia and New Zealand, when the performances fluctuated with the inconsistency that has dogged the national team for some time, is that he needs to strike the right balance between the amount of information his team can take on board from a technical perspective without blunting the manic physical edge that Ireland need to compete.
Against Australia, the players were laden with detail and were expending too much mental energy worrying about what the new coach expected of them. Without that physical edge, the Wallabies were offered a licence to play and Quade Cooper exacted maximum return. With those lessons absorbed, Ireland hit all the right notes against the All Blacks before imploding in the final minutes.
To produce that level of performance against a team who remain a distance ahead of even South Africa and Australia was an achievement in itself. The challenge for the Irish management is to capitalise on the positives from those games and carry them into the next two weeks.
A Six Nations campaign presents a three-phase challenge, with a positive start an absolute necessity. Ireland blew it last season when, having accounted for the then champions Wales in Cardiff with some scintillating rugby in the opening half, they fell at the next hurdle, at home to an emerging but vulnerable English side.
This time out Ireland are in the unusual position of having two home games to commence their assault on the campaign. That favourable schedule must be capitalised on with Saturday week’s match against Wales pivotal to a successful debut campaign for Schmidt.
He must approach that opening phase of the tournament as if the forthcoming clashes against England, Italy and France are in a different time warp.
Emerge unbeaten from the games against Scotland and Wales and the next phase of the campaign, taking on England in their opening home encounter in Twickenham, will prove so much more appetising.
Phase three encompasses the final two games against Italy and France and are so far down the road in Schmidt’s thought process at present as to render them meaningless for the time being.
It has been said that momentum is everything in this championship, even if Wales defied the odds last time out by losing their opening game at home before recovering to capture back-to-back crowns.
Joe Schmidt is a quick learner and I, for one, just cannot wait to see how he negotiates his way through what promises to be the most intriguing tournament for some time from an Irish perspective.