This time last year, Joe Schmidt was giving his best ‘aw shucks’ performances in talking at length about the pressures that come with being Ireland’s new head coach.
As we know, the Kiwi fared just fine.
After four years of largely disappointing performances and results, Ireland delivered a Six Nations title and, in total, eight wins out of ten. Even the two defeats, to New Zealand and England, saw Schmidt’s side go down by a penalty or less.
It’s a body of work that would suggest Schmidt became comfortable in his new skin with some alacrity, but he chuckled when asked if he was now more assured of his place in the environment.
“I feel very small. I feel squashed. The pressure ... after a year in, you think you know your way. I don’t think that’s accurate at all. You know (now) how tough it is. You know how fine the margins are and we missed a really fine margin this time last year (against New Zealand) and we managed to get one (against France) during the Six Nations.
“We know there are going to be some fine margins and, as a coach, you’re always trying to find those fine margins. I’m incredibly lucky because I’ve got a group of coaches who are very much driven in the same direction and that allows us as an entire group to probably buffer ourselves from some of that pressure.”
Just as well because it is only going to multiply.
In 365 days’ time, one very lucky and very accomplished group of players will wake up for the first time as freshly-minted world champions and this month’s games mark the first concrete steps towards that goal for all the aspirants.
Ireland’s record in the global competition is, well, mediocre at best and, though Schmidt stresses the importance of the next opponent and the next game, he found himself quizzed on the steps Ireland need to take between now and October 2015.
“Jeez. We need to crystallise in our minds what that squad is going to look like and that’s part of what happens in the next three weeks. I don’t think you can get any further down the track than that because there are too many unknowns. If you asked me after Argentina (in the summer), ‘aw look, what are you lining up for South Africa?’, what I would have been planning would have probably involved some different individuals and therefore you’ve got to adjust. If you don’t adapt, you die.”
Schmidt’s Ireland will need to do just that, and more. South African coach Heyneke Meyer has been highlighting the added value that would come with Ireland’s scalp as Six Nations champions. Others will feel the same.
Ireland adopted a solid but unspectacular system last season, but more will be required to further their aims and maintain their position at the head of the pack in Europe and as a dark horse approaching the World Cup.
Developing playing styles and systems is one thing, but doing it in the midst of what is close to being a crippling injury list is another when the opposition consists of the Springboks and Wallabies — and Georgia, of course.
That can be looked at two ways: as a free pass for a side devoid of a first XV and more of senior players or, as one inquisitor put it to Schmidt very baldly yesterday after training at the Aviva Stadium, Mission Impossible.
“It’s mission really tough,” Schmidt laughed. “If you didn’t want to do the mission (in the movie and TV show) you could throw it back in the water and it’d blow up in five seconds. That’s not our modus operandi. We’re very motivated to give it our best shot. We have a great group of players who have shown massive enthusiasm. That brings a whole energy to the group. Whatever mission it is, we are absolutely committed to it.
“The outcome is something we are not going to be able to control, but the preparation and trying to get the processes as close to right as possible is something we can control the bulk of. That’s all we can work towards.”
Dwindling prop options a headache for Schmidt
A new international season dawns next week when South Africa visit the Aviva Stadium but, for Ireland, it brings with it an age-old headache that harbours the potential to destroy any best-laid plans.
Like Eddie O’Sullivan and Declan Kidney before him, Joe Schmidt finds himself crossing his fingers and his toes this weekend and praying that his dwindling supply of serviceable props report back fit for duty.
As ever, the tighthead brigade looks especially worrisome. Mike Ross struggling to be fit. Martin Moore and Nathan White banjaxed. Rodney Ah You, Stephen Archer, Declan Fitzpatrick and Tadhg Furlong either undercooked or inexperienced. Or both.
All of which means none of that quartet could be excused from PRO12 duties this weekend thus guaranteeing the Ireland coach a fraught 24 hours or so as events unfold in Dublin, Belfast and in Wales.
Ross did, at least, train yesterday but he hasn’t played rugby in a month because of a groin injury and Schmidt wasn’t completely reassuring when asked if the brains trust were confident his understudies could do a job if needed.
“We have to be. If we don’t have confidence in them it’s hard for them to have any confidence in themselves. We’re keen not to put someone in a position where they’re going to be undone.”
Schmidt confirmed he will not ask Jack McGrath to switch over from loosehead, though that was mooted in the past. The Leinster man and Dave Kilcoyne are the extent of the thin green line on that side of the front row.
Think Peter, Paul and thievery.
Full-back and 13 are the other main areas of conjecture. Rob Kearney took a limited part in training yesterday after his back troubles and the tea leaves from the session and media conference that followed point to Robbie Henshaw starting at outside-centre.
Next week will reveal all.
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