DONAL LENIHAN: Joe Schmidt is the best thing to ever happen to Irish rugby

Just watching the positive energy Joe Schmidt brings to proceedings is infectious, writes Donal Lenihan.

Two hours before the 2015 World Cup final at Twickenham, and I’m relaxing in the media centre, deep in conversation with two administrators from World Rugby.

Despite the fact the hosts had failed to make the quarter-final, I congratulated them on their staging of an excellent tournament.

Their thoughts were already turning towards the 2019 event in Japan and the challenge that would shortly commence on making that equally successful.

With that in mind, and noting the impact Japan had made on the field of play throughout that tournament under Eddie Jones — who will ever forget that epic match on the opening weekend, when they beat the Springboks in Brighton — I suggested what a pity it was that Jones wouldn’t be on board to extend his work with the Japanese squad to make the hosts even more competitive.

Both shook their heads simultaneously. The message was clear. Four years is the maximum any squad or union could last with Jones. He has a habit of wearing people down.

Now deep into his third season in charge of England, I wonder if the players and, given some of his stupid public utterances of late, the RFU are beginning to reach that point already?

Compare that with the impact and influence Joe Schmidt continues to bring to proceedings in his fifth season at the helm with Ireland. Right now, if the IRFU thought they could secure his services for another five years, they would jump at the prospect immediately without a dissenting voice from the players.

Put simply, Schmidt is the best thing to ever happen to Irish rugby.

His record of success with Leinster and Ireland will prove extremely difficult for any future coach to emulate and I believe there is more to come before he eventually bids adieu.

Just watching the positive energy he brings to proceedings is infectious. You learn a lot from observing the pre-match warm-up before these internationals.

Where the likes of Warren Gatland, Jacques Brunel, and Eddie Jones tend to observe, arms folded from a slight distance in their civvies, Schmidt is running around in his tracksuit, heavily involved, directing operations.

He appeared so animated in Twickenham last Saturday, you might have confused him for a player. Perhaps it was the cold.

Some coaches feel that this is the time when they need to step back and allow the players take ownership but, despite Schmidt’s hands-on approach so close to kick-off, that never appears a problem for this Irish team as the senior players take over seamlessly once the whistle goes.

Outstanding with Ireland, you wonder what might he be capable of with his native New Zealand.

That very prospect must be registering louder than ever with the NZRU as we speak.

They have a long-held policy whereby to be appointed coach of the All Blacks you must be operating in their domestic set-up.

Potential candidates must first show their commitment to the cause, without any guarantee of getting the top job, and ply their trade with a Super rugby franchise regardless of whether they have operated at that level before.

I have a feeling that policy might change soon.

At least we have him for the next World Cup and its imperative Irish rugby maximises every minute he’s on board. He makes good players better and great players outstanding. His genius is in the detail. Of even greater importance is his ability to break down and deliver the component parts of what he requires in a way players understand and buy into.

Put simply, he gets the best out of players willing to do the work.

He identifies ways to take a particular strength of an individual and how that might contribute more to the team effort.

Simple things like using Chris Farrell’s height to put restarts into areas of the field that the opposition are not expecting. Ireland regain possession having just conceded a score and Farrell feels good about himself.

Take that classic CJ Stander try last Saturday that was built around the extraordinary skill-set Tadhg Furlong possesses and that Schmidt felt he could deliver under pressure.

With the opposition on red alert in anticipation of a trademark Johnny Sexton wrap around, Schmidt used him as a decoy.

England had no right to expect that a tight-head prop could deliver a pass, in traffic, as exquisitely as Furlong did to put Bundee Aki into a hole.

Aki even had options on his inside and outside shoulder with Stander and Garry Ringrose running pre-determined support lines. Either could have scored. Remember that was delivered off first phase, when the opposition defence is at it’s most structured. It encapsulated the genius of Schmidt.

With expectation levels at an all-time high and a massive target now on this team, what Schmidt does next will define whether or not Ireland will finally break the glass ceiling and address the only remaining blemish attached to Irish rugby, our failure to advance beyond the quarter-final stage of a World Cup.

With that tournament now only 18 months away, I am fascinated to see how Schmidt will approach Ireland’s three-test series against Australia in June. Will he decide to rest some of last summer’s Lions contingent in the knowledge next season will be a marathon because of the World Cup or will he opt to keep the momentum going with a first series win since Ireland triumphed there in 1979?

With New Zealand to follow in Dublin on November 17 next — what a game that promises to be — Schmidt will be keen to maintain a winning habit against the best teams in the world.

At a minimum, I think he needs to contemplate starting one of the three tests against the Wallabies — perhaps the second in Melbourne — without Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray at half-back.

Joey Carbery did superbly well when introduced for Sexton on a temporary basis just before half-time last weekend and played a key role in setting up that crucial try by Jacob Stockdale on the stroke of half-time, tacking on a difficult conversion for good measure.

Even on that front where most teams have a reliance on one key place kicker, three different players registered points for Ireland last Saturday with Sexton, Carbery, and Murray all successful from the boot.

With the World Cup in mind, I’d still like to see Carbery and Luke McGrath or Kieran Marmion handed responsibility for directing operations for a big test against a major side away from home. It would be an investment worth making. Remember New Zealand had to win a World Cup in 2011 with their fourth choice out-half kicking the winning penalty in the final itself.

Finally, I was asked by someone on the flight home from London on Saturday night who my Irish player of the tournament was. Without hesitation, I was drawn towards that magnificent half-back duo and despite Sexton’s individual moment of pure genius at the death in Paris, I opted for Murray.

A contender for man of the match in every game — he was the official recipient against Italy — his overall contribution was immense.

Whether it was taking pressure off Sexton with the quality of his box kicking, stepping up to take penalty kicks against Wales and England when Sexton was recovering from knocks, winning lineouts, making breaks, making crucial tackles, or scoring tries, he brought an element of class and authority to every outing.

The only question he has left unanswered at this stage is, can he scrummage? Well, he has proved he can do everything else. What a player. What a coach. What a squad. Roll on Australia.

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