A captain down, a decimated back row and his on-pitch general carrying an injury into the biggest game of his coaching career.
It should be a cause for sleepless nights but if these are nervous times as kick-off looms for tomorrow’s World Cup quarter-final against Argentina, Joe Schmidt is not showing it.
It is not in the Ireland head coach’s job description.
Ireland stand on the brink of an historic first World Cup semi-final appearance that will further enhance Schmidt’s standing as the best thing in Ireland since Johnston, Mooney & O’Brien took a slicer to their daily loaf.
The newly minted Irish citizen knows getting to the last four is easier said than done, though. He has been handicapped by the loss through tournament-ending injury of Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony and Jared Payne as well as suspension to Sean O’Brien ahead of an almighty breakdown collision with Argentina’s magnificent pack of ferocious Pumas.
He is well aware of the attacking threats posed by the twin-playmaking axis of Nicolas Sanchez and Juan Martin Hernandez and that in Johnny Sexton his own inspiration at fly-half may be hampered by the adductor strain he suffered in last week’s draining pool win over France. And all the while the folks at home are as expectant as ever for a new milestone in Irish rugby history to be reached.
Pressure? You bet.
But was Schmidt showing it yesterday as he named his change-enforced team? Not a chance.
“I’ve a love-hate relationship with my job,” the Ireland boss said. “I love coaching and I’ve got a fantastic group that I work with. I really enjoy so many elements of it and at the same time I think I’m like anyone, when the pressure is there you’re conscious of it, you’re trying to be the least reactive to it as you can be, because if you’re not calm you can’t expect your players to be calm.
“You learn from experience. I’ve been doing the job probably for 15 years now, certainly not at this level or in this really high pressure environment but it’s happened in stages for me and I’ve been really lucky to work with some really fantastic player-driven teams that I’ve been able to enjoy the role of coaching them. And as I say that’s the bit I really enjoy.”
As is tradition, once the team was named and final full training session done, Schmidt handed over the reins to his captain, Jamie Heaslip, to drive this group of players towards the start line, trusting them to do the right thing as they have these past two seasons through two winning Six Nations campaigns and victories over Australia and South Africa while he sits back and endures the longest wait.
Ireland have been to the quarter-finals five times before and been sent packing but Schmidt should feel more than optimistic his players can break the trend and make it sixth time lucky.
“I’d never exude confidence but you’ve got to be quietly confident. You go out there with a strategy which is not too different from the strategy you started against Canada with,” the head coach said.
“We tried to keep things very low profile leading into the World Cup. I think people reading form then when people are probably keeping things under the radar, that’s fine but since then we have tried to build and we’ve tried to build each match.
“That doesn’t always work — Italy for us was a very tough day at the office. They made it very difficult for us. There are a number of similarities in the way Italy and Argentina tend to play. They’d be very much ‘get in your face’, they tend to challenge you at the breakdown and, on top of that, Argentina have the luxury of some world-class finishers and some people very adept at transferring the ball to those world-class players.”
As is Schmidt’s inclination he reeled off most of the Argentine names that have been occupying his thoughts. For public consumption they are a team of world beaters but privately, confidently, the head coach has immense faith in his own players, their commitment to the cause and their ability to triumph under the most extreme stress and pressure.
“I’m always incredibly nervous and I’m a realist in that nothing makes it different. Irish teams have been really well prepared in the past and haven’t gotten over the line. The Irish team four years ago were really well prepared and, you know, I think that they were incredibly disappointed at the end of the day and we will be too.
“I guess the group have demonstrated that, in adversity, they can respond and I think there’s something in the Irish psyche that if you are beaten around a little bit, there’s a resilience and resolve that gets demonstrated. I would be really confident that that will be demonstrated. Is that going to be enough? We’ll find out on Sunday.”
One suspects Schmidt already knows the answer but is too prudent to share it. The answer is yes, Ireland do have enough to make history.
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