With his rampant Ireland team currently churning out far more answers than it raises questions, Joe Schmidt’s place at the coaching top table cannot be disputed. But is he the pick of the current crop?
On present evidence, yes.
New Zealander Schmidt’s effectiveness lies in his attention to detail, the meticulous planning and endless analysis of opposition game-plans.
There is no rocket science attached to what he does – it’s just that he appears to do it better and more consistently than any of his peers.
And his record emphatically stacks up in the results-driven business that is international sport. Since he was appointed as Declan Kidney’s successor in the Ireland job almost two years ago – Schmidt has taken Test rugby by storm.
Sure, there was an emphatic home defeat against Australia just two games into 49-year-old Schmidt’s reign, but Ireland then could – and unquestionably should - have beaten world champions New Zealand. Ireland led 19-0, then 22-17 deep into injury time, but a converted Ryan Crotty try edged the All Blacks home.
Irish hearts were broken, but Schmidt had no intention of wallowing in self-pity. Within three months of that setback, Ireland saw off Dublin visitors Scotland and Wales, scoring a combined total of 54 points and not conceding a try.
Their tactical execution against Wales, particularly, drew widespread acclaim after Schmidt out-manoeuvred his opposite number and fellow Kiwi Warren Gatland, who had masterminded a memorable British and Irish Lions Test series triumph in Australia the previous summer.
Although Irish Grand Slam hopes then ended through a 13-10 loss to England, they bounced back by winning their final two matches, securing Six Nations title glory in the process. And since they suffered that narrow Twickenham defeat, Schmidt’s men have embarked on an Irish record-equalling 10 unbeaten Tests, seeing off South Africa, Australia, England, France (twice), Argentina (twice), Italy (twice) and Georgia.
Victory over Wales in Cardiff next week, meanwhile, would leave Ireland needing to avoid defeat against Scotland on March 21 to secure successive Five or Six Nations outright championship crowns for the first time in 66 years.
They have also climbed six places from ninth to third on rugby union’s official world rankings list since Schmidt took charge. Schmidt’s current run with Ireland is no fluke, either, having enjoyed success throughout a coaching career that previously took in Bay of Plenty (Ranfurly Shield), Clermont Auvergne (Top 14 title) and Leinster (two Heineken Cup triumphs, a European Challenge Cup final success and one PRO12 title).
Last Sunday, England boss Stuart Lancaster followed Gatland, Springboks chief Heyneke Meyer, Australia’s Michael Cheika and Frenchman Philippe Saint-Andre - among others – on to an ever-expanding list of coaches who have tried and failed to outwit Schmidt.
Schmidt worked England out to perfection at the Aviva Stadium, nullifying their kicking game and effectively removing England fly-half George from the equation terms of his effectiveness.
They were different tactics to those employed against France a fortnight previously, but equally as definitive. Schmidt has a very clear and brilliantly-conceived plan of what he wants to achieve against any given opponent, and with some outstanding players at his disposal – half-backs Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray, especially – the delivery is top-notch. Wales away is now the next sizeable hurdle to overcome, followed by Scotland at Murrayfield, before the World Cup awaits later this year.
In seven previous attempts, Ireland have never progressed beyond the World Cup quarter-final stage.
Under Schmidt, though, a place in the 2015 World Cup final seriously cannot be discounted.
And that, perhaps more than anything, underlines how far Ireland have come under Schmidt’s inspired leadership.
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