Ireland v Samoa
At least Martin O’Neill will only have to wait a week following his appointment as Republic of Ireland soccer boss to get his new regime up and running. Poor Joe Schmidt has had to wait more than six months to send out a team.
On the day, O’Neill and Roy Keane are unveiled as the FAI’s management dream team, six days ahead of their first game, Schmidt finally gets to taste Test match rugthis evening as he takes charge of Ireland’s Guinness Series opener against Samoa at Aviva Stadium (5.45pm).
It is a moment he has been planning for since April 29, when the IRFU handed the then Leinster boss the reins of a national team that had limped across the finishing line in last season’s Six Nations, a near catastrophic casualty list and associated poor results sealing the fate of predecessor Declan Kidney.
A lot can happen in six months and having completed business at Leinster with a RaboDirect Pro12-Amlin Challenge Cup double, the New Zealander observed Ireland successfully negotiate the interregnum under interim head coach Les Kiss with back-to-back wins on tour against the USA and Canada.
And now, it is Schmidt’s turn to take the helm, and after a successful mini-camp in September and two weeks of preparation ahead of this three-Test series against Samoa, Australia and New Zealand, the limps of last March have been converted into lively steps marching into a new era for Irish rugby.
The players are relishing the clean slate and the chance to make amends for past disappointments and the optimism outside the camp for the former schoolteacher to deliver the sort of exciting, winning rugby he fostered at Leinster is such that the Kiwi has already had to temper high expectations.
He is happy his vision has been bought into by players and public alike, but rightly remains cautious that it can be made real with immediate effect.
“I’d like to think we can develop a product that people really enjoy attaching to and if you get that emotional attachment, I think that the team, they get driven forward as a result and I think the spectator, they enjoy the experience that much more,” Schmidt said.
“That’s the challenge that the team have, it’s a challenge for me and it’s a little bit daunting, to be honest, because of that expectation but I’m excited by it.
“I don’t think if I was ever going to be in a job coaching professional rugby, and I kind of fell into it at the start, but since then, just like a player you challenge yourself to take expectations and bring them to fruition. That’s a challenge and I’d love to see it happen immediately but I’m also a realist and it make take a little while.”
Schmidt’s team selection reflects the tendency to realism. With playmaker Johnny Sexton resting a hip flexor problem following an arduous start to his debut campaign with Racing Metro, newly-appointed captain Paul O’Connell and fellow Lions Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy feeling their way back from injury by starting on the bench and the talismanic centre Brian O’Driscoll woefully short of game time this season due to fitness issues of his own, it is hardly the blank sheet the head coach would have wished for.
Yet the determination to get his tenure off to a winning start against Samoa and relieving them of the number seven spot in the world rankings while building momentum ahead of stiffer challenges from the Wallabies and All Blacks has been almost tangible among Schmidt’s players this week.
The buy-in has already happened, it seems, and this squad, according to hooker Rory Best, are champing at the bit to go out and execute their coach’s vision.
“There’s an expectation on this group, there always is, whether it’s outside pressure or not, but every time we meet up, we come from successful provinces, successful clubs,” Best said. “And we expect to win games and I think in terms of that pressure, it’s there, we all expect to win.
“This is a fresh start for us but that expectation is still there from us. We don’t expect to lose games and we expect to perform to a certain level.
“I think from that point of view, we put pressure on ourselves to perform, we put pressure on ourselves to win the game on Saturday and ultimately that’s what it comes down to, that we want to win.
“We expect a performance, and when we get that performance, we know we have enough skills to win the game.”
There have been easier introductions for new bosses, however, and though Ireland should have enough to get Schmidt’s reign off to a winning start, Samoa have not arrived in Dublin as the fall guys.
Ranked one place higher in those IRB rankings, this is a team of talents that has beaten Wales, Scotland (twice) and Italy in last 12 months, losing only to France and South Africa. They would surely be even better equipped to mix it with the big guns were they given a more challenging Test schedule but today’s game is their only meeting in this window with a Tier One nation and Stephen Betham’s side must make do with games against the French Barbarians and Georgia in the weeks to follow.
That means beating Ireland is their tour priority, with the added incentive of improving this, their highest ranking ever, to fifth if results elsewhere go their way. And though key players such as Seilala Mapusua and Alesana Tuilagi are missing from their line-up while captain Paul Williams, the Stade Francais centre, Harlequins flanker Maurie Fa’asavalu, Worcester wing David Lemi, Perpignan back-rower Dan Leo and Toulouse tighthead Census Johnston are all injured, their replacements are no mugs.
Famously physical, their power in the scrum and intensity at the breakdown is matched by pace, great hands and good off-loading in broken play. Scrum-half Kahn Fotuali’i is a playmaker in his own right, partnering fly-half Tusi Pisi in a creative combination that could cause Ireland immense problems with Samoa having averaged three tries a game in their last five Tests, the most recent of which was a 56-23 defeat to the Springboks.
Schmidt and his coaching staff have prepared their players for the variety of threats Samoa pose, with defence coach Les Kiss warning: “We’ve got to make sure we start the game well and put ourselves in a strong position... They are a lethal unit if they get going, so we’ve been making sure our guys have their heads in the right place for this game.”
It is, then, time for Ireland to hit the ground running, in more ways than one. After all, a nation expects the Joe Schmidt era to kick off in flying fashion.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved