Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Let Schmidt Be Schmidt

vote joe

logo post greenThey say sport and politics should never mix but it’s very hard to avoid the latter these days.

Whether it’s over in the USA where the campaigns last forever until the actual voting produces a winner relatively quickly, or here in Ireland where it’s the exact opposite of that, it’s all over the news everywhere you look anjd we normally rely on sport to provide us with a perfect escape route for our attention when it all gets too much.

And generally I fully support this separation, which is why you shouldn’t find any semblance of political reference on this site.  Until today. 


Ok hopefully you know that was a joke just there....seriously, what I plan to do here is talk about Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt while making reference to one of my all-time favourite TV shows.

The West Wing, as you probably know, was an American political TV drama which ran from 1999-2006.  It was mostly based on the fictional US presidency of the central character, Josiah Barlet, played by Martin Sheen.

I’m referencing a particular episode, namely Season 1.19, titled “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet”.  To make a long narrative short (at least as short as I can given it was written by Aaron Sorkin), Barlet was governor of New Hampshire before becoming president, and in order to get to the White House he felt he had to tone down his liberal tendencies in order to make nice with the opposition.

When this started to go against him and he was starting to get into trouble for not really speaking his mind on things, his Chief of Staff and close friend Leo McGarry tells him now he’s establish in the Oval Office the best thing he can do is go back to being the way he was when he was plucked from the governor's mansion and put into a general election campaign.

On a July morning in 2010 I brought the kids to Clondalkin RFC to watch the Leinster open training session, which was being taken by our then brand new head coach, Joe Schmidt.  I knew very little about him apart from him being a New Zealander who had spent some time on these shores way back when and who was previously behind the potent backline that was making Clérmont into one of Europe’s great powerhouses.

Well from then on, in the five seasons that ended in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015, his team came out of the season with at least one major trophy.

I left that above paragraph on its own because it’s important to give it a bit of space so you can allow it to properly sink in.  Go on, get your eyes back up there and read it again, I’m not going anywhere.

Now I’d like you to have a look at the try below, scored by Brian O’Driscoll in a Heineken Cup quarterfinal at the Aviva Stadium in 2012 against the Cardiff Blues.

THAT is the kind of rugby that Joe was known for.  Now of course it didn’t always go as sweetly as that, and not all our tries came from a reliance on our backline moves, but still, this was pretty much Leinster’s trademark in that amazing spell of silverware-capturing from 2011 to 2013.

You can point to things like poor defending or a once-in-a-generation type player wearing the 13 jumper alright, but only to an extent.  Tailoring moves to suit the opposition on the day was Joe’s style, and he did it right up to the very end of his time as Leinster supremo, with stories of his “run these plays and you WILL score” instructions ahead of the 2013 Amlin final now fully enshrined in folklore.

But this success came at a time when the Irish team’s fortunes were heading in a different direction.  Declan Kidney had a couple of impressive one-off displays from his boys in green after the Grand Slam in 2009, but never really got close to emulating those heights.  So Joe was well poised to take over.

Now I can totally appreciate how Joe might have been thinking when he assumed his new role.  Test rugby is very much a different ball game.  All the planning and video analysis in the world isn’t going to ensure that you will get past your opponents at this level, there’s simply too much quality at every position on the park.

Plus, there was the whole “post-BOD” dilemma.  From the moment Joe took the reins, while he still had the legend for “one more year”, he had to get that thinking cap working in overdrive to sort out who will take his place.

And all of the above came along with what has to be the toughest part of the test role for Joe Schmidt...the limited time with his players.  Down in the southern hemisphere, more often than not when a squad assembles, be it in the ITM Cup, Super Rugby or the Rugby Championship, they stay together for pretty much the duration of the tournament.

Not so in Europe.  Here, we have “windows” which are shoe-horned in the middle of a frantic calendar of provincial rugby, which means he has to make do with whatever time is available, as well as keeping tabs on how the next down the pecking order are doing whenever he can.

Taking all of the above into consideration, I really cannot find fault with the much more conservative approach to rugby we have seen in this Ireland team since Joe took over.  And it’s not like it wasn’t effective.

Six Nations Champions 2014 and 2015.  Defeated Australia, South Africa, came within a whisker of beating the All Blacks.  That last one wasn’t the only disappointment in that time, and it certainly wasn’t all plain sailing, but it’s a pretty impressive haul nonetheless.

But one thing about success is that it puts a target on your back.  You become the “team to beat”.  So teams began working on plans designed to do just that.  And with a serious amount of injuries thrown into the mix, those started to work.

And ever since that Argentina result, we have seen a faction emerge of Irish commentators and supporters who not only have little patience with the current slump, but even go so far as to say “I told you so” as if the previous successes were only bits of good fortune and today’s predicament was something they foresaw all along.

Well, how about we don’t accept the narrative of this group that I call #SchmidtStirrers.

I’d rather see it a different way.  Like I said earlier, I can appreciate why Joe approached the test game the way he did up to now.  That move that worked against the Cardiff Blues was hardly going to be a dead cert against a team of man-monsters like the Springboks.

But Joe is not a test rookie anymore.  He’s an established coach at this level and as we can see by the way teams are lining up against us, it’s what he does that dictates how the opposition approaches these contests, not vice versa. 

Now another feature of this #SchmidtStirrers carry-on is that everyone seems to know which players Joe “has to” select.  Of course we all have our opinions in this area, and that’s part of what makes harping on rugby great.  I’d never have even considered Henshaw at 12 and Payne at 13, for example, and very few would have.

But for this article, I wish to make no mention of who should fill the respective jumpers.  Here, I am only interested in how Joe approaches the game on a conceptual level.  And I believe it is time to Let Schmidt Be Schmidt.  What’s more, I think it is already happening (just in case you think I’m going to be taking credit for anything at a later date!)

We have already begun to see something more expansive in this season’s Six Nations, particularly against England, where we found a way to both pull apart their strong defence and find a way through it on more than one occasion, with the finishing touch the one thing that was lacking, although not always our own fault.

For this kind of rugby to consistently work at test level, however, we’re going to need something else.  Teams are starting to bully us around the breakdown, and merely having certain personnel wearing certain jumpers is not the way to fix it.  If we’re going to stand up to the bullying or indeed come out ahead of it and partake ourselves, it will take a cultural change on our part.

Basically Ireland under Schmidt has become a team known for meticulous organisation, and that has been great, but the clear response from most other coaching setups has been to “knock us off our game” and particularly against France and England this clearly worked.  After these upcoming home matches against Italy & Scotland, we head to South Africa where such “dark arts” are more or less a way of life whatever the opposition.

Enter Mr A Farrell.  To go a bit further with my US political references, he could be our “Trump Card”.

As great and all as Les Kiss did making our defence the solid entity it is now, as with any organisation it’s time for a new pair of eyes to come in and while he has an excellent foundation to build on, there is building to be done nonetheless.

Much has been made about the “narrow” nature of the way our defence tends to set up but I wonder if this has been overstated.  OK, maybe we do challenge our opponents to chuck it out wide quickly and when they do, they can reap rewards.  It happened twice in quick succession against Argentina and twice in quick succession against England and these two displays serve as bookends to the current “crisis” period.

But for me it’s more about our general mindset on defence just as much as the specifics.  Things like holding on a bit longer after a clear out or throwing a sly dig after getting someone on the floor or grabbing a handful of a flanker’s jersey to prevent him getting away from a scrum are all technically illegal, but realistically they are part of the game and it’s time to start fighting fire with fire.

Of course I’m not suggesting we’ve been angels up to this point by the way, I just think we need to do the “devilish” stuff better.  And once our forwards can establish themselves early, then the hope is that our backs will have more time to sort out their end of things, with territory being gained more from strong running and offloading and less box kicking and chasing, effective as the latter has been.

These matches against Italy and Scotland may not “matter” with regard to the destination of the Six Nations title, but they do in other ways.  If we can get wins by 15pts or more in both that will greatly help our ranking points which in turn will help our seeding for the RWC2019 draw, whenever that may be.

But more importantly, they represent opportunities for us to undergo, as much as I am reluctant to borrow a phrase from Eddie O’Sullivan, “evolution not revolution”.  Starting in June we have an incredibly difficult schedule for the remainder of 2016 that includes playing the Springboks three times and the All Blacks twice.

The time is now to demonstrate that whatever the make up of our fifteen on the field we can play in such a way as to be able to compete with those top teams.  And one thing is for sure, there’s only one man who gets my vote to lead us from here to Japan in 2019 and he already has the job.  JLP

#COYBIG #ShoulderToShoulder #TrustJoe #LetSchmidtBeSchmidt


Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019