Whisper it. There’s something special brewing in Irish rugby
Joe Schmidt has quickly impregnated the set-up with a new vitality, new direction and a new philosophy that I think will lead to a renewed period of success for thenational team leading up to and including the 2015 World Cup.
There’s a new Ireland rugby camp these days. Every player is at their optimum mentally at the minute. I alluded last week to a freshness in the Irish set-up. I want to elaborate on that. There’s a massive determination for something to be achieved under this new Schmidt management ticket. This wild ride is only beginning and tomorrow will be another step forward.
The Heineken Cup box has been ticked for most of our leading players. That chapter, a glorious 10 or 15 years marching on Europe, the mental stimulus of climbing that summit, has been achieved. Tee-shirt worn and washed. But with the quality of Ireland’s player pool now, they are looking to achieve things above and beyond that. This Irish squad wants more and eye the World Cup in 2015 as their destiny. They’re already focusing in on that, trying to build something really special for that tournament.
If a Leinster international ends his career with four Heineken Cup medals instead of three, how much more does it actually matter? Of course it matters, but not as much as if an Irish player was to win three grand Slams or a World Cup.
Even reach a final and get a silver medal. This Irish team needs to go after that, because I think they can go there.
We’ve under-performed hugely in the green jersey in the last 36 months, that’s why everyone is scarred and short of belief. But before that, we were winning triple crowns regularly. Look at the last World Cup and the horribly disappointing quarter-final. Should Ireland have been in that semi-final or final? It sounds very daunting, but when you’re in the middle of it, it isn’t at all.
Now, more than before, the pieces are in place. I like O’Connell as captain, I like Schmidt as coach and his genuine building of a squad rather than just punishing or jettisoning players for poor performances. That’s a strange way of building.
I watched Joe’s press conference and team announcement yesterday. Very interesting. There is no sense that Gordon D’Arcy or Conor Murray have been axed. And they know that. It’s Eoin Reddan turn, Luke Marshall’s turn, Ian Madigan’s turn as back-up to Jonathan Sexton. The coach is growing a squad at the right time, in the right circumstances, and creating the proper environment in which to do it. Tomorrow the coach is saying to Marshall and Reddan, ‘okay, here’s an opportunity, let’s see what you can do against top tier opposition.’
At successful stints with Clermont and Leinster, Schmidt has operated on the basis that you cannot rely on one person for one position. That is going to be the principle from here on. Last week he did that with back three and at 10, this week it’s at nine and 12. His thinking isn’t rocket science but it’s progressive and he’s a proven track record of doing it properly.
When he was at Leinster he tended towards the physicality at nine of Isaac Boss. Tomorrow against the Wallabies is not that kind of scenario. I’m sure Joe would agree that it is easy, as Reddan did, to look good coming in after 60 minutes, easy to speed things up. But starting the game is completely different. And next weekend will be different again. For the All Blacks, he’ll go Murray-Boss, that’s my gut. Different selection motives for different teams.
Schmidt will want to play high tempo against Australia, hence Reddan’s selection. His operating instructions will be move the ball at pace and get to every breakdown as quickly as possible. Will Genia and Quade Cooper are not the most physical half-back partnership, so defensively Eoin shouldn’t be over-taxed.
Conor Murray hasn’t really had a setback in his career thus far. Whether with Munster or Ireland, he’s made it pretty much plain sailing. Not getting the nod for tomorrow is something he won’t like, but hey, welcome to Joe’s new world. No plain sailing this weekend, I look forward to seeing Conor on the rebound.
With such a strong line-out selection, Ireland should go well in set-piece phases, which they’ll put a big focus on. The other area I’m looking forward to seeing is kick-offs. Let’s see what’s been done there.
Australia, under new coach Ewen McKenzie, are probably 50% a better squad than they were in the summer, though that’s not saying alot. They were seriously poor against the Lions.
There appears a semblance of enjoyment returning to their play, and if you don’t have that, you’ve nothing. But we’re probably going to have a wet ball at Lansdowne Road tomorrow, and penalty joy for Ireland from scrum time and collapsed mauls is likely. With a territory game, Ireland win in these winter conditions. Australia, at their deadliest, thrive on a hard track in Brisbane in the summer. I don’t see them being able to ramp it up at a miserable (for them), wet Aviva. The Irish reservoir of mental strength, under Schmidt, will be far superior.
It’s been a long break from Ireland for Jonny Sexton, the most talked about man in Irish rugby. He’s under his own kind of pressure. If he doesn’t perform, that pressure grows from within. Again, here, Schmidt, is the right fit as coach. Good feedback and encouragement is the breakfast of champions.
And the difference between walking around camp with you chest out or going back to your hotel room wanting to throw yourself out the window.
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