Thursday, November 07, 2013

Joe Schmidt : The First 217 Days

As he gets ready to name his first team and captain, I outline my early expectations for the Joe Schmidt era.

Ireland coaches

NOVEMBER 9 - SAMOA (H)
NOVEMBER 16 - AUSTRALIA (H)
NOVEMBER 24 - NEW ZEALAND (H)
*JANUARY 25 - SAXONS (A)
FEBRUARY 2 - SCOTLAND (H)
FEBRUARY 8 - WALES (H)
FEBRUARY 22 - ENGLAND (A)
MARCH 8 - ITALY (H)
MARCH 15 - FRANCE (A)
JUNE 7 - ARGENTINA (A)
JUNE 14 - ARGENTINA (A)
* = Wolfhounds

I’m not sure if Joe Schmidt has had time to think about his Christmas card list over the last few days, but if he did, he would no doubt move the name of John Delaney right to the very top.

For after six months of being able to fly under the radar since his appointment what with honeymoon period, off season and domestic action to serve as a distraction for the press, the appointment of a new national coaching regime in that other team sport came at the perfect time this week to help take even more spotlight off of Joe and his new team.

Well I’m not going to ignore the question…what are we looking for from Ireland in the near future?

In the US when a new president is sworn in there has been a tradition of sorts in that he is “allowed” 100 days after to get acclimatized to the role before the serious questions start getting asked.

I reckon Joe should be given a similar grace period - his first ten test matches to be precise.

Not that we shouldn’t offer any criticisms in that time, of course, but I am firmly in the camp where his remit is seen as preparation for the 2015 Rugby World Cup.  Strangely there are those who are still stuck in rugby’s stone age thinking that only performance in the Six Nations matters.  Well that makes absolutely no sense to me. 

Sure, Triple Crowns, Championships and Grand Slams are great if you can get them and I’ll celebrate them as much as anyone else if and when they happen. 

But if you have even an ounce of competitive blood in your veins you surely want to test yourself against the best in the game and everyone knows that involves the Rugby Championship nations, and we only get to share a competition with them once every four years.

So if Joe Schmidt is to have a target by the end of next June’s summer tour to Argentina, I would say that it is to have a decent idea of his best available squad, with at least three names arranged in a pecking order for each position (with cross-overs that doesn’t necessarily mean as many as 45 names of course).

This goal comes with an amnesty for one particular position…number 13.  A crucial one it may be, but Brian O’Driscoll needs as much game time as he can possibly get over this November and next spring - we can start looking at alternatives in Argentina.

As you may know on this blog we have run a series of weekly posts from guest contributors called “Let The Schmidt Hit The Fan” where one supporter from each province picks their ideal Irish team.

Well my wish with this post is not to give my own list of ideal names for the squad, with the exception of BOD at 13.  Since I am giving Joe a relatively wide berth of 10 matches, I wish to leave the selecting to him in the hope that he is taking the long-term view I describe above.

That doesn’t mean I am without a laundry list of things I want to see from the team when they take the field, of course.  And I will have that list with me when I go to the Aviva this Saturday for their first November encounter with the Samoans.

I had a look back over Samoa’s last test match, a hot-tempered affair on the Highveld against the Springboks where they were blown away by 23-56.  It wasn’t exactly a case of seeing them at their best as with victories over Australia, Wales and Scotland they have moved ahead of Ireland in the rankings.

Still, if this were a one-off match Ireland should feel the can come out on top this Saturday, and from what I know about Joe from his time with Leinster, he should be able to bring the right amounts of both confidence and pragmatism to the dressing room.

Here are things I will be looking for in the Irish team :
  • DEFENCE - much like Matt O’Connor’s early days with Leinster, this Irish team must focus first on how they play without the ball, and the retention of Les Kiss is crucial to that end.  The Samoans like to pick and go before the defence has time to settle so they should be well tested this weekend.
  • SET PIECES - another coach flying well under the radar is John Plumtree.  For me, he has quite the task.  We may have more options coming through at key positions like props than we did a year or so ago, but whatever about the personnel we need them to be playing together from the get go.  The new scrum laws will need to be mastered quickly at test level, though it’s going to be in all areas where we need to perform the basics well.
  • A DEFINITIVE STYLE - naturally my Leinster blood has me keen to see Schmidt & Sexton reunited, but that does not mean I simply expect the style of play that won so much silverware in recent years to be replicated at test level because it doesn’t work like that.  Still, although I am offering a generous 10-test buffer to the new set-up, I would like to be able to say after the Samoa game that we at least have a sense of what they are looking for.
Relatively speaking this is a favourable opening series of matches for Ireland.  The first five full tests are all at home, most of the opponents are ranked above us, so once we remain competitive throughout, Joe should be able to keep the doubters at bay (well the sensible ones anyway, we of course must always ignore the haters & trolls).

If you are an Ireland fan first and foremost, hopefully you are excited about this new dawn in Irish rugby.  As the counterparts in soccer have also shown this week, sport is amazing in the way a few tweaks here and there can breathe life back into your favourite team even after a poor run of results.

Let the November games begin. Of course I will be covering every Leinster & Ireland match over the next 200+ days same as always, but when I do my writeup for the second test in Argentina, I will also make a point of revisiting this post and seeing just how the lads have done.  JLP

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