Game day, 8am.
Joe Schmidt’s first Six Nations appointment as head coach was just seven hours away. Then team doctor Eanna Falvey’s bombshell about Paul O’Connell’s chest infection was dropped in his lap.
Think about that.
Schmidt had spoken at length in the first few months after his appointment about the pressure he felt in the new role. He had opened up about the scale of the task and the responsibility and here he was, on this of all days, landed with that.
As curveballs go it was a doozie and, though he spoke later about processes and personnel being in place, he would hardly be human if his heart hadn’t skipped a beat when reality dawned so close to launch.
“It’s funny because I didn’t really think that. We had Iain Henderson as the 25th man and I just thought, ‘good, we have Hendy as the 25th man so he can come straight onto the bench and Dan Tuohy can come straight in’.
“You can’t change what happened, you just have to plan and just demonstrate faith in the player. I don’t think I’d be lying if I said I was concerned with the loss of the player because of who he was but not concerned about who was coming in.”
Schmidt had described himself as “naïve” only two days previously yet the reaction to O’Connell’s unforeseen exit on the part of the coach and his players was testament to a man who is anything but.
Dan Tuohy talked later about the amount of “reps” he had been afforded alongside Devin Toner in training in the event of just such an eventuality. Schmidt had ticked all his boxes.
To be blunt, O’Connell’s dodgy tummy meant that Ireland’s greatest challenge was done and dusted by the time the coaches and players had eaten breakfast. Scotland scrapped, as we expected. Ireland won, as we expected.
O’Connell’s sleepless night allowed Dan Tuohy in to make his Six Nations debut. The Ulster lock was one of five men doing just that — one of the more pleasing aspects to an otherwise routine afternoon’s work.
Slowly but surely, Schmidt’s ambition to squeeze every last drop out of Ireland’s playing resources before the 2015 World Cup goes on. His stated aim is to use 34 players by the time he is done with this Six Nations.
“Maybe do it little and often and involve a wider group,” he explained. “It does help to build a deeper platform. It’s obviously what we need. We lost Sean O’Brien and Paul O’Connell which is effectively a quarter of our pack.”
None of that long-term planning will matter a fig next Saturday. Ireland-Wales games have been seasoned with spite and suspicion this last number of years and this latest tussle will differ none.
Schmidt gave a detailed run-down as to just why Wales will benefit from their extra day of rest this week — not the usual whinge which some coaches can be guilty of, just a reasoned day-by-day statement of facts.
Warren Gatland’s side would have spent yesterday afternoon stretched out watching events in Dublin. By today they will be knee deep in prep while the Irish sooth sore bones and rest weary minds.
That said, there was the suggestion that Ireland hardly emptied their lockers of tricks and tactics against the Scots, even if Schmidt is anxious to avoid a repeat of the opening half-hour witnessed yesterday.
“Well I hope they don’t have to see that much of our defence in the first-half. That was reasonably tough going and in the second half we played a relatively simple structure. We could win the ball and win collisions.
“It was simple stuff because we felt they had to chase the game. ‘Gats’ has known me a long time. I’m sure he knows what to expect. He’s managed Ireland and against Ireland.”
It works both ways, of course.
There are few secrets in either camp that haven’t been cracked by the other given the cheek-by-jowl nature of life together in the Pro12, European Cup, Six
Nations, Rugby World Cup and on Lions tours.
Wales will know that Ireland can improve. Ditto Ireland with Wales after their scrappy win against Italy.
“Last year they were slow starters and came through and beat everyone else after losing their first game,” said Schmidt in reference to Ireland‘s win in Cardiff and Wales‘ ability to go on and claim the title. “I’ve no doubt they’ll improve. They’re too good not to, across the board size and speed. At the same time we have to believe we’re formidable enough at the Aviva and we’re keen enough to demonstrate that.”
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