BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Whatever Schmidt has, it works

Joe Schmidt must have big sleeves.

All last week, the same refrain was heard: that the Kiwi would have something hidden up those same sleeves with which to flummox South Africa.

It’s a proclamation we have been hearing with greater frequency and certainty with every game his Ireland play.

Thing is, it is a message that should have been delivered with a shrill voice this time given the absences of 18 players through injury. Instead, there was a discernible air of certainty and calm about what it was that the Ireland coach would yank from up his jumper.

Most notable of all was the volume of those in the media saying as much. Coaches don’t often earn much in the way of blind faith from the fourth estate, but there it was written in black and white in numerous titles on Saturday morning and earlier in the week.

One can only imagine the confidence Schmidt must inject into his players if this is the effect he can have on hardened observers and supporters alike, neither of whom are privy to the minutiae that make up his modus operandi.

Whatever it is, it works.

Effectively, what Schmidt has done by overcoming the Springboks with so many players unavailable is to undermine the long-held acceptance that the Irish rugby team is only as good as its best 15 or 23 players.

Ireland’s players have reaped the benefit of other excellent rugby coaches in the modern era before Schmidt, but it is nigh on impossible to imagine any of them benching a veteran such as Gordon D’Arcy on the back of such a casualty list.

One of the main criticisms of Eddie O’Sullivan was his dependence on a small cadre of players while Declan Kidney had a core of his own that he worked with.

Schmidt used more players two days ago (23) than Kidney did (22) over the course of the Six Nations campaign that ended with Ireland winning the Grand Slam. Such a stat now belongs in an entirely different era though it happened just five years ago.

The national team used to be about the few world-class players available and, while there is no case here for belittling the input of individuals now, the fact is that the system has replaced any one man as the cog that makes all else turn.

Rhys Ruddock is a case in point. The Leinster flanker earned only his fourth cap at the weekend. He wasn’t aware he was starting until after a late breakfast at 10am, but he spoke 10 hours later about the belief in Schmidt’s structures and game-plan.

“We knew we had a couple of plays we could go to,” said the 23-year-old who gave a coming-of-age performance at openside flanker despite having spent the evening before visualising the different roles he was covering across the back row.

“And even though at times we felt like we were bashing against a brick wall we knew that some of the plays would work. Our game-plan was pretty sound and I thought we battled hard and got a couple of tries on the back of good planning as well.”

Like dogs and their owners, or kids and their parents, successful teams tend to take on the characteristics of their coaches and Schmidt’s Ireland is one that plays a clever game, doesn’t complicate matters and pays particular attention to detail.

It was interesting, too, to watch how none of the players so much as pumped a fist when Romain Poite blew the last whistle. Exhaustion will have played a part, but so too did the fact that the result did not exceed any pre-game expectations. Schmidt aped his side’s reserve at the end with a measured and mannered media performance.

What, you wonder, will he magic up next?


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