DONAL LENIHAN: Outsiders give Schmidt a reminder

Quite a week then. I must admit I didn’t see Rob Penney’s departure from Munster coming down the track nor, for that matter, that Ireland would beat Wales by a margin of 23 points.

Any wonder that manager Warren Gatland described Saturday’s Welsh performance as the worst in his seven years at the helm.

The fact that Wales were never offered a platform to play can be traced directly to the tactical mastery of Joe Schmidt and forwards coach John Plumtree, implemented majestically by their trusted lieutenants on the field in Johnny Sexton and Paul O’Connell.

This was Ireland’s most complete performance for a long time, with every player revelling in the clarity brought to their respective roles. Coming into this championship, Dave Kearney and Andrew Trimble were probably rated Ireland’s fifth and sixth choice wingers before injury robbed the new coach of Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald and Simon Zebo.

Yet both Kearney and Trimble have been magnificent in the opening two games and have carried out their respective duties, in attack and defence, with a clinical assurance that suggests the quartet of recovering Lions will have their work cut out to get back into the side.

If Schmidt’s actions in omitting Zebo from the wider squad after his recent foot injury is geared towards generating a more focused edge in the maverick Munster winger, then it appears to be having the desired effect. Zebo’s work rate and hunger to get on the ball has been exemplary in his recent outings for Munster and the Irish Wolfhounds, but the new boss man seems happy to allow him stew for a while.

Zebo has never been shy about coming forward but I hope his flamboyant nature isn’t being used as a stick to beat him.

After all, it’s what differentiates him from the rest.

One of Schmidt’s primary goals this season was to build depth in the squad, with the 2015 World Cup beginning to raise its head on the horizon. While Jack McGrath, Marty Moore, Tommy O’Donnell, Dave Kearney and Dan Tuohy have all sampled Six Nations rugby for the first time over the last fortnight, it is the response of those left on the outside looking in that must be really pleasing to the Irish management.

Despite the demands the championship places on all the club/provincial squads left competing in the Pro12, which has four rounds of games running parallel to the international tournament, the performances of the provinces last weekend suggest that Ireland have left their Welsh and Italian counterparts in their wake in terms of back-up resources. The only blemish on that front was the failure of Connacht to account for a Glasgow Warriors side shorn 12 players on duty with Scotland.

Connacht need to get their act together. That magnificent win over Toulouse in France offered a glimpse of what they are capable of and highlighted the number of quality young players at their disposal. There are sufficient windows of opportunity during the autumn internationals and the Six Nations, when opposition teams are shorn many of their front-line players, for Connacht to make capital. They did that last season, accounting for Ospreys, Cardiff and Zebre during the Six Nations.

There is no way they should be propping up the Pro12 table with just two wins from 13 games and if they want to attract quality young Irish players from other provinces and retain the exciting talent their academy is doing such an excellent job in developing, they have to become more consistent on the field. They have the personnel to do so but are not getting the results that talent warrants.

The fact that Munster haven’t been overly burdened by the demands of the national squad has left them with powerful options and some of the rugby produced in that six-try, 54-point win over Cardiff Blues on Saturday night was brilliant to watch. Leinster, despite losing 13 players to Ireland last Saturday, raked up 31 points on the road in the bonus-point win over Zebre while Ulster also showed their mettle in a hard-fought win over the Ospreys.

In all of those games, players who failed to make the cut for Ireland set out to stake their claim for down the line. Schmidt has created such a positive environment and a centre for excellence within the Irish set-up that every player on the periphery is champing at the bit to be part of it. That is exactly what every national coach wants to create.

Ireland’s next outing in Twickenham will offer a further indication of the progress been made. While England are far from the finished article and have a number of promising players finding their feet at this level, they have performed admirably against all the top southern hemisphere sides on their home patch in recent seasons.

England were decidedly unlucky to lose to France in their opening game in Paris and could conceivably have beaten Scotland by a cricket score. Watching the demise of Scottish rugby has been painful and Saturday’s 20-0 drubbing was embarrassing. When Scotland go down to their greatest rivals without breaking sweat, you have to wonder where the game in that once proud rugby nation is heading.

Back to domestic matters then and the decision of Rob Penney to move on at the end of the season which nobody within the Munster set-up anticipated. With the option of an additional year on his existing contract activated by the professional board, the New Zealander had earned the right to complete the excellent work he had done since his arrival. However for personal and family reasons, not least the security provided by a three-year contract, he has chosen to move on, which is his right. I would have preferred to see him stay for at least one more season.

Question now is who should replace him? When Tony McGahan departed two years ago, there was a recognition that the new man should have a proven track record in player development, given that Munster had lost so many seasoned campaigners, to be replaced by comparative novices.

Penney had a proven track record in that regard with Canterbury and was therefore seen as a better fit than Anthony Foley, who was still earning his coaching stripes. The role of the head coach is all encompassing as it involves leading an entire team of specialist coaches, video analysts, medical, strength and conditioning staff. It also requires a hands on input into the workings of the academy as well as being front of house and competent in dealing with the media, sponsors and supporters club.

Foley has since been part of the international set-up as defence coach and stand-in forwards coach when Gert Smal was ill during Declan Kidney’s tenure. Given that the vast majority of the Munster side he soldiered with are now retired, he is in a far better position to assume control now.

If he is up to the task, and I suspect he is, then the former Munster captain should get the job not because it is the popular thing to do but because it is the right thing to do. There are times when our indigenous coaches have been disadvantaged in going for one of the big five roles because they are too familiar to those making the decisions.

Declan Kidney would not have become Munster coach back in 1997 had first-choice, former Welsh coach John Bevan and former All Black captain Andy Leslie both turned it down. Begrudgingly, Kidney was appointed and he didn’t do too bad. I suspect Foley wouldn’t do too bad either.


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