Is Joe Schmidt’s Ireland ready to shed tag of once-off world-beaters, asks Ronan O'Gara.

Once history has been made, can you be as hungry again?, asks Ronan O’Gara
Is Joe Schmidt’s Ireland ready to shed tag of once-off world-beaters, asks Ronan O'Gara.

I WONDER what Joe Schmidt thought of that TV documentary last week on Ireland’s tour to South Africa in June. Irish Rugby: What we did last Summer offered an inside-the-tent perspective on the first test success in Cape Town, but it was a series Ireland lost 2-1. The programme went into no great detail on the two losses in Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth.

Irish Rugby: What we did last Summer offered an inside-the-tent perspective on the first test success in Cape Town, but it was a series Ireland lost 2-1. The programme went into no great detail on the two losses in Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth.

Schmidt knows the performances in the second and third tests weren’t good enough, certainly not for the standards he expects of this group. Joe knows Ireland left a test series behind them. That was the story.

When Joe flicked on his TV last week, I’d say he wasn’t happy. You want to win test series. There were big learnings from South Africa, issues that have been dealt with. Mistakes that won’t be repeated.

All this feeds into the preparation for tomorrow’s renewal of hostilities with the All Blacks. I wouldn’t reference Clive Woodward too often on these pages, but before England won a World Cup in 2003, the head coach knew they first had to win a test series in the southern hemisphere. Psychological barriers to breach.

The win in Chicago was the start of something, but to beat New Zealand again tomorrow will take Ireland into unchartered waters.

The coach has signed a new contract to 2019 and knocked back going with the Lions to New Zealand, favouring the prospect of studying his extended Irish squad in the US and Japan. Joe knows what he’s doing next summer. He’s the rugby professor and he wants to see his pupils learning at every opportunity.

Billy Holland made his international debut last Saturday against Canada. I’m not sure Billy would have got his cap under a different national coach, but Schmidt likes players who study the game, who place a big emphasis on homework and match intelligence. You need to be a good athlete, but there are massive opportunities for players like Holland. That’s why Chicago was a big day for Project Schmidt, proving that form trumps reputation. The missing trio of O’Mahony, Henderson, and O’Brien were hardly mentioned.

Joe’s next trick is proving Soldier Field was no once-off. The mind is a powerful thing, and the Ireland players will have weak moments this week when Rory Best and the coaching team aren’t looking. Once history’s made, can you be as hungry again? Much depends on what sort of mental strategy Joe has in place for the players. For the moment, the Wallabies on Saturday week is an irrelevance.

Ireland must approach the All Blacks like a World Cup final. They must realise that if they don’t win again, Soldier Field, historic as it was, will feel like a one-off. Tomorrow at 5pm there’s the opportunity to stake a claim to be one of the world leaders with the quality of squad and, more important, the quality of management they have.

That management goes a lot deeper than Joe and Andy and Simon and Greg. How many of you know Jason Cowman? The strength and conditioning coach is a serious operator who doesn’t get anywhere near the recognition he deserves. He doesn’t want it either. Preparing players, physically and mentally, to peak at the right moment, driving scores, making them far better competitors than they might have been — that’s all part of Jason’s load.

Way back when, I rocked up to the gym one Monday afternoon for a backs session at 3.30pm. In the door at 3.29pm with a cup of coffee in my hand. He ran me out of the place, told me to come back when I was ready to train. You needed to be here 15 minutes ago. What sort of signal is that sending off?

I didn’t do it again.

The small, incremental improvements Ireland are making are in every phase of the game. Half-backs and midfield attract headlines, but how good is the Irish ruck at the minute? You never see Conor Murray digging for the ball. It’s presented on a plate — no coincidence. That comes from Irish coaching, the way they review and preview the ruck. Watch Irish rucking, then compare to a club game if you want to see the equivalent of night and day. Compare it even to Top 14 here in France, where it’s slow, frustrating.

Ireland is like rugby indoors in comparison. How they go about their accuracy around the ruck is so different, and not just the back row or locks. The whole team’s tuned in. A lot of forwards hit 20-30 rucks a game. It’s a shared load in green — McGrath, Best, Heaslip, the two second rows, have to clear out all day.

Devin Toner has added key components to his game and has made massive strides as a result. Schmidt has made him an effective ball carrier, increased his workrate and tackle count, not to mention his efficiency on the opposition lineout. It was one of the key differences in Chicago — the All Blacks had no ball to attack.

It will be a different New Zealand tomorrow for sure. They don’t use punchlines like revenge. They have bolstered their pack, retooled the second row. It was interesting to hear their coaching staff talk about a nice bit of nervousness in the camp this week. That wouldn’t always be there, and was certainly missing in Chicago.

Expect Ireland to have something different up their sleeve too. They have New Zealand rattled and the weather conditions will be very different in Dublin than they were in Chicago. The likelihood is it will be a greasy ball, which makes it more of a pressure game. The Aviva crowd will be hugely important. That 18-match unbeaten run by the All Blacks was in the southern hemisphere. Dublin in November is a different beast.

I don’t want to allow the week pass without mention of the Munster-Maori experience seven days ago. An old school hard performance by the hosts. Munster are playing incredibly good stuff up front at the moment. I watched the game with a notepad.

January is coming soon. Too soon in fact...

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