Even for a coach as experienced as Joe Schmidt, international rugby represents a whole new canvass for the affable New Zealander.
It doesn’t help that his right-hand man, forwards coach John Plumtree, is in the same position with a brief sojourn acting as a video analyst for John Mitchell when he was coach of New Zealand over a decade ago his only exposure to international rugby.
That is why the input of defence coach Less Kiss, who has been part of the Ireland set-up since Declan Kidney’s appointment back in 2008, will be vital over the next few days.
For an opening bow, Schmidt has been offered a pretty demanding schedule, the only consolation being that the ultra-physical South Africa squad Heyneke Meyer has assembled is not on Ireland’s rota this time out.
Be thankful for small mercies. Last season Kidney was afforded the luxury of introducing a quartet of promising Ulster men to the next level against a callow Fiji at Thomond Park.
While the IRFU’s decision not to award caps for that encounter proved justified given the ineptitude of the visitors, Luke Marshall, Paddy Jackson, Iain Henderson and Craig Gilroy made such an impression that all four would feature when the Six Nations came around a few months later.
For Schmidt, a series opener against South Sea islanders Samoa offers no such opportunity for experimentation, a situation I expect will be reflected in his team selection tomorrow. With Australia and New Zealand to follow in quick succession, Ireland’s new management team have been offered little scope for manoeuvre.
Schmidt and Plumtree have been exposed to the demands and expectations of some of the best players in the game from their time directing operations at Clermont Auvergne, Natal Sharks and Leinster but the fragmented nature of the international calendar imposes a completely different set of ground rules. How quickly the new Ireland management team adapt to those differing requirements will dictate how quickly they can impact and influence such a diverse group of players.
Schmidt has a big advantage over Plumtree in that he has an intimate knowledge of all the Irish players from his daily involvement with Leinster and from prepping the Blues for derby games against Ulster, Munster and Connacht. Plumtree had some interaction with the Irish game from his time at the helm at Swansea, where he was head coach between 1997 and 2001, but the Irish landscape has changed immeasurably since those fledgling days of the professional game.
He is charged with revitalising the set-piece which will be central to Ireland’s game plan against Samoa and Australia, while also tasked with devising a plan to curb the effectiveness of the All Blacks at the breakdown. At least he has plenty ofexperience on that front having been instrumental in masterminding several outstanding wins for the Sharks over top class New Zealand opposition in Super 15 rugby over the years.
First things first, however, and the immediate challenge is to hit the ground running with a win over Samoa. That may not prove as straightforward as it sounds. Over the last 12 months, wins over Wales, Italy and Scotland have propelled Samoa above Ireland in the IRB world rankings and the squad their coach Stephen Betham has at his disposal is experienced and well balanced.
It is drawn from the very best the Aviva Premiership, French Top 14, Super 15 and New Zealand’s ITM Cup has to offer, with only two front-liners, Alesana Tuilagi and Seilala Mapusua, unavailable due to their commitments in Japan.
The Samoans will also be smarting from the fact Ireland are their only Tier 1 opposition this autumn and will be gunning for a win. At least the fact Saturday’s game is the first of their campaign means they may not be quite up to speed. That said, Ireland are in the exact same position.
Traditionally, the Samoans were brilliant broken field runners, ruthless in the tackle but vulnerable in the set-piece and lacking in discipline. That is no longer the case as they demonstrated so forcibly against Italy and Scotland in an invitational tournament in South Africa last summer. They dismantled an Italian side that beat Ireland in the last game of the Six Nations while also accounting for the Scots, who remember also beat Ireland in the championship.
In those contests, their scrum was rock solid as one would expect with the Johnston brothers, Census and James, rotating at tight head with Leicester Tigers man mountain Logovi’i Mulipola sharing duties on the loose head side with Wasps’ Sakaria Taulofa.
Hooker Ti’i Paulo features regularly for Clermont while second row Joe Tekori’s form in Castres’ French championship-winning side last season saw him snapped up by Toulouse.
While Tuilagi and Mapusua were key figures in the Samoan attacking strategy and will be missed, Betham, who supervised a three-day training camp in England last week, still has a sprinkling of quality backs to mould a decent attacking unit. Kahn Fotuali’i and Tusi Pisi have been their regular half-back combination for some time now and while Mapusua’s physical presence in midfield will be missed, Taranaki’s big-hitting Isaia Tuifua, if selected, is more than capable of filling the void. Out wide Samoa have an abundance of pace in David Lemi and Sinoti Sinoti.
England’s win over Australia last Saturday will not have been particularly well received by Schmidt either, as it serves to lift expectation levels even further before they arrive in Dublin. Our final opponent in the autumn series, New Zealand, open the European leg of their tour (they accounted for Japan 6-54 in Tokyo last Saturday) against France in Paris on Saturday night.
They are playing rugby from a different planet at the moment. Is it any wonder the only sold-out sign posted for the Aviva Stadium this month is for Richie McCaw’s men? The discerning Irish rugby public recognise a special rugby side when they see one and this New Zealand side is well worth travelling to see.
After a number of disappointing seasons on the international front, Schmidt’s appointment has captured the imagination with the hope the attacking flair he brought to Leinster can be replicated at this level.
In a week when Schmidt and Plumtree take their first tentative steps on Ireland’s journey to the 2015 World Cup in England, that pairing have already been usurped by the FAI’s fascinating dual ticket of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane that, in one fell swoop, has reignited even the most casual supporter’s interest in Irish soccer fortunes.
Fascinating times ahead then for followers of Irish international sport as both management groups set out to win the hearts and minds of the sporting public.
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