Saturday’s stunning win over the Springboks was all the more pleasurable given that few saw it coming in the wake of a very difficult period on the injury front, writes Donal Lenihan.
Fewer still had any inclination of the new midfield pairing of Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne until the whispers started circulating after Joe Schmidt revealed that combination to the squad in training last Monday.
When Ireland lifted the Six Nations Championship in Paris last March the centre pairing of Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy had a combined 212 caps between them and were lining out as an international pairing for the 56th and last occasion.
On top of that add well over 100 games and innumerable training runs together for Leinster.
Henshaw and Payne would barely have spoken before meeting up in Irish camp a few weeks ago and had a grand total of five training sessions together. That type of stuff is more reminiscent of what used to happen in the amateur days.
Yet amid all the injury chaos, with bodies falling like bowling pins, a bulb went off in Schmidt’s head that this new combination just might work. Despite the quality of opposition he went with his gut instinct. That is just one of the many qualities that defines Schmidt as a coach. He backs himself and that unwavering belief and clarity of action rubs off on all around him.
D’Arcy is a quality international player who has always operated in the shadow of O’Driscoll despite the fact his innate qualities in attack and defence contributed handsomely to the growth and development of his more illustrious partner over the years.
This time last season with many questioning if he would make next year’s World Cup, the Wexford man produced possibly his finest ever performance in a green shirt on the day Ireland should have finally put New Zealand to the sword.
With O’Driscoll retired the easy option for was to pair Henshaw with D’Arcy against South Africa and trial the new combination of the Connacht man and Payne against Georgia.
Schmidt knew he would learn far more by throwing both in at the deep end against the Springboks and so it proved.
It must have been hard for D’Arcy to warm up with the side last Saturday, fully togged out in his Ireland gear, only to retire to the sideline where he wasn’t even required on the bench.
The affable Joe Schmidt that comes across so pleasing to the eye in the media is far removed from the man who dominates the Irish dressing room. He doesn’t do sentiment, is a stickler on detail and expects every member of his squad, regardless of whether they are in the match day squad or not, to be fully up to speed on every aspect of the team’s preparation and action plan.
Hence when Paul O’Connell pulled out on the morning of the Scotland game last February, Dan Touhy stepped up and fitted in seamlessly.
Same with Rhys Ruddock on Saturday when he produced a superb performance when called up only hours before the game for the unfortunate Chris Henry.
Schmidt has been a revelation since pitching up in Leinster a few years ago and is now the hottest coach in international rugby with Saturday’s performance raising his stock even further. With his contract due to expire at the end of next season, now is the time for the IRFU to tie him down and secure his services beyond the 2015 World Cup.
While Warren Gatland was touted immediately after the completion of the successful 2013 Lions tour to be handed the reigns once again for the even greater challenge of touring New Zealand in 2017, Schmidt’s name must now be up for serious consideration.
With Steve Hansen set to review his role as All Blacks coach on completion of next year’s World Cup, Schmidt’s measure of success will not have gone unnoticed in his native land either. Hansen has done a superb job with New Zealand after acting as forwards coach under Graham Henry for a number of years in the build up to their successful 2011 World Cup campaign.
Under the former police officer, New Zealand have carried the mantle of world champions better than any of their predecessors with successive Tri Nations and Rugby Championships under Hansen’s reign and only two defeats and two draws in the 39 tests since assuming the top job.
New Zealand set the bar high and Schmidt appears the perfect fit for that role at some stage in the future. Every New Zealand coach aspires to lead the All Blacks at some point in their career and Schmidt appears tailor-made for the challenge. Right now, time is of the essence for the IRFU and they need to sit down with Schmidt at the conclusion of this Guinness Series and put their best offer on the table to secure his services beyond 2015.
While Schmidt is fully deserving of the plaudits that are rightly coming his way this week, the Irish players along with assistants Les Kiss and new forwards coach Simon Easterby also deserve massive credit.
The defensive performance orchestrated under Kiss frustrated the life out of South Africa. The midfield were crucial in implementing that and given their aforementioned lack of time together, Kiss worked wonders in drilling a clear understanding of what was required in the heat of an international contest.
The margin of Ireland’s victory was even more remarkable given that they were under the pump in both the scrum and the line out with quality ball hard to come by. South Africa manage to do that to most opposition but despite the difficulties posed, Ireland coped and improvised especially in combating the threat of the South African maul.
In Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, Ireland will now have the most accomplished and experienced half back combination of any side going into the World Cup. What would England’s Stuart Lancaster give for those two? Sexton has been a class act for some time now but like many before him including O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara and Keith Wood, a Lions tour has elevated him to another level.
Players can sink or swim on a Lions tour but Murray has taken all the positives, measured himself against the likes of Mike Phillips and Ben Youngs on that 2013 sojourn to Australia and liked what he saw. While he has grown from that experience and risen to a new level his two rivals have lost their starting position in Wales and England respectively.
As for the concession of the late try to South African winger JP Pietersen — widely bemoaned as it prevented Ireland from rising to third in the IRB rankings — I would say this: The only time those rankings have any tangible merit is for the seedlings for a World Cup draw. Other than that the only time worth carrying the mantle of world number one is on the Monday morning after a World Cup final.
For confirmation, just ask New Zealand.
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