Schmidt’s time to reflect before Six Nations battles commence

And now the wait.

As the exertions of that epic performance against New Zealand fade, the Irish players are moving on from four weeks in camp to provincial preparations for the next rounds of Heineken Cup pool qualifying.

For Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt, though, there are more than nine weeks before he sends a team into action once more and is able to lay down the next foundation stone in the building of a side for the 2015 World Cup.

That’s 68 days to reflect on what should have been an historic first victory for Ireland over the All Blacks and consider how best to ensure that the heights his players reached in that heartbreaking 24-22 loss to the world champions can be maintained heading into the 2014 RBS 6 Nations.

Schmidt will only have a couple of days over Christmas with the Ireland squad before he names the players he will prepare for the championship opener against Scotland in Dublin on February 2.

And they will be sure to be told by the New Zealander, that it is time to move on from the boom and bust cycle of performances that have hobbled Ireland since winning the Grand Slam in 2009.

Translating a flourishing autumn finish into a bright spring is a difficult act.

As Schmidt recalled on Sunday, France had an excellent November in 2012 but tanked at last season’s Six Nations. Then look at Wales, who lost each of their autumn Tests and their championship opener to Ireland but finished the Six Nations as champions.

Test rugby is a magnificently frustrating sporting arena and Schmidt needs to find a way to get a level of consistently good performances out of Ireland, so that the required level of intensity displayed against the All Blacks is the yardstick rather than an anomaly.

Inevitably, one only needs to look to that magnificent New Zealand squad for a glimpse into consistency at the highest level.

The way Steve Hansen’s side dug themselves out of trouble this November, against France, England and Ireland, is a testament to the belief and confidence instilled in their rugby culture and Schmidt needs to inject some of the same into his players.

“Part of that intensity comes from desire and confidence and clarity,” Schmidt said.

“I think it’s easier to be intense when you know where you’re going and you know what your job is, then you can get stuck into your role.

“I think it’s hard to be intense when you’re not sure ‘do I go here or do I go here?’

“As soon as you over-think, then I think you get yourself into trouble...

“But at the same time, if we can get that massive amount of clarity it does help our intensity because everyone then knows their roles.”

That will only come through familiarity and Schmidt clearly benefited from another week on the training field after the Australia loss as his players got further up to speed with the former Leinster coach’s systems and expectations.

Having a core of players from the province he coached for three seasons is certainly a bonus as far as Leinster and Ireland prop Mike Ross is concerned, but Schmidt now has to adjust to dealing with them for short periods at a time.

“He’s gone from a situation where he’s used to having unfettered access to players for months to where he only has them for brief windows,” Ross told the Irish Examiner, “but knowing him, he spends a lot of time watching videos and matches and it’s probably a relief for his family he doesn’t have to do it week in, week out.

“I think it will be down to time spent together. At the moment, Joe’s building a squad and using different players in different positions. He’s very methodical in what he does. At Leinster he’d often have different teams for home and away games and he’d like to rotate, say Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss, depending on what he wanted, so he’s not afraid to change things up and mix things around.

“At the same time you have to know your detail, have to know what you’re doing because that’s the one thing he has no tolerance for.”

Ross is only too aware of what Schmidt’s expectations of his players are and the consequences of not living up to them.

“It always helps to know a coach well, and you never want to get on his bad side,” the tight head said.

“He can be pretty ruthless. The one thing I’ve always respected about him is he’ll never make something up. If he’s annoyed with you, it’s in black and white.

“When he first came in (to Leinster) he slated me for not catching a winger. I was like ‘I’m a prop’ but the way he explained it, it hadn’t occurred to me and that’s the kind of mindset he has. He wants you to anticipate what’s going to happen before it does and to be in position to make the tackle or the catch.

“I’ve never really been able to argue with him, which is a bit frustrating.”

Ross said Schmidt’s bad side had already been seen in the Ireland camp, particularly after the defeat to Australia, “but even after the Samoa win he was pulling things out that we could do better. He’s pretty relentless in that aspect.

“I remember when Joe first came to Leinster, it took a while for everyone to get onto the same page. It was probably four games in before we actually won. I remember we went over to Edinburgh and lost badly and we were all used to (previous coach Michael) Cheika who wasn’t afraid of giving you a piece of his mind when things weren’t right. Joe was pretty even-minded after it when we were expecting strips to be torn off us and we wondering, ‘what the hell’s this guy doing?’.

“He does have a rough side to him and we’ve seen it. He will cut you fairly quickly. But we know we’re still bedding in and this stuff takes a bit of time and the results in Leinster over the last couple of years speak for themselves.”


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