As honeymoons go, Joe Schmidt’s has been bliss.
It’s nigh on 10 months now since the IRFU anointed him as Declan Kidney’s successor but only in the aftermath of the first loss to Australia last November have the grumbles risen to a level above inaudible.
Still, some minor quibbles have surfaced since Saturday.
Schmidt, Les Kiss and John Plumtree sat down yesterday, three days after that narrow loss to England in Twickenham, for another debrief with the media at the Aviva Stadium and there were inevitably holes picked — gently, it must be said — in the performance.
Some were tactical, like why Jonathan Sexton kicked so short on his restarts. Others dug deeper, like the one asking why the Irish challenge faded after grabbing a 10-3 lead. More again were personnel-related with Simon Zebo’s name again being mentioned.
Nothing suggestive of an insurrection — in Joe we still evidently trust — but the man himself was honest enough to admit he is far from infallible while remaining firm in his conviction the good ship was still plotting the course required.
“I doubt myself every day. I don’t doubt the guys either side of me. We’ve formed a really good combination as a (coaching) group and we’ve spent a fair bit of time this morning bouncing ideas on selection, bouncing ideas on how and what we do over the next two days to add the most value we possibly can, who needs to do what this weekend in terms of releasing guys back to play for their provinces.
“So the one thing I don’t doubt is how hard we’re working to try to make the right decisions and the right decisions will be those that put us in the best position to win the championship. Because we haven’t worked as hard as we have to put ourselves in this position and not to make the best decisions for the immediate future.”
Schmidt spoke of his eagerness to move on from Twickenham yet he will revisit the defeat today in Belfast when the core of that squad comes together again for a two-day camp.
Yet there was a mood among the press corps yesterday to dig deeper than that in what is a down-week in terms of a Six Nations which resumes on March 8 with a round four visit of Jacques Brunel’s Italian side to Dublin.
Schmidt is now six games into his 10-game maiden campaign with Ireland and, for all the disappointment over last Saturday’s defeat, he finds himself atop the Six Nations table with six tries scored and just once conceded.
Things clearly aren’t too bad.
“There’s two results (against New Zealand and England) that, if things were going as planned, we’d love to have them. There’s two results that I do feel, against the best team in the world and one of the toughest teams to beat at home in the world, that if you had said 12 months ago ‘this is where you are’ I would have leapt at it.
“I do think as a group we are still learning and the players are getting more comfortable. What we have done is prove we can play a few different ways and we can slow the game down and play with a lot of structure. We can open the game up and play with a bit of tempo. We can fit different people into different situations.”
Whether that is a principle taken literally for the Italy game is another thing. Schmidt pointed out that some players could conceivably go to Paris in round five on the back of one game in five weeks if they were rested against the Azzurri.
Not for the first time he contrasted the contrasting intensity and quality of the PRO12 and Test rugby environments when asked about players looking to break into the Test squad by way of provincial performances in recent weeks.
Which brings us back to Zebo, who has scored five tries in four games for Munster since his return from injury but, here again, Schmidt produced a line of thinking which he and his lieutenants have uttered before.
“He’s alongside a number of other players as someone we are watching really closely. I’ve had conversations with Simon. I’ve spoken to him recently. We believe Dave Kearney has been outstanding so far.
“A couple of his aerial takes at the weekend were outstanding. His ruck work was outstanding. Defensively his tackle quality has been good and when there’s not space he has been elusive. Andrew Trimble has been very effective for us as well.”
Change, it seems, will be kept to a minimum.
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