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Dublin: 12 °C Saturday 19 April, 2014

Schmidt’s biggest test yet awaits as his Ireland travel for first time

The New Zealander appears to have carried many of the strengths that made him a success at Leinster into international rugby.

Five matches into his international career, Schmidt is impressing.
Five matches into his international career, Schmidt is impressing.
Image: ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

THIS WEEK SEES Joe Schmidt preparing his Ireland squad to travel for the first time in his tenure as national team coach. Having made such an impressive start to his reign, England at Twickenham is his greatest test yet.

It was hugely welcome to hear several of Ireland’s stars underline that their recent improvements were ‘player-led’ in the aftermath of the dominant victory over an off-colours Wales. While nothing has yet been achieved in truth, it is tempting to laden Schmidt with the majority of the credit for re-invigorating our national team.

Whether the players’ insistence of their own central involvement in the development of the last few months was encouraged by Schmidt or not, it was justified. Still, there is little doubt that the Kiwi has made a strong start to international coaching.

There had been slight concerns that Schmidt would find it difficult not to have everyday control over his players throughout the course of the season, that utter supervision that he is apparently so fond of. Of course, that is not an issue during the Six Nations period, with so much exposure to his charges during this phase of the year.

Indeed, it appears that the additional time Schmidt has had away from the players has allowed other strengths of his coaching to come to the fore. His ability to pick out opposition flaws and potential weaknesses has been heralded many times, and now it seems that Schmidt has utilised the additional ‘free’ time he has as an international coach to go even more in-depth in that regard.

Three wins from five and a narrow loss to the world’s best team, as well as a defeat to Australia that Schmidt insists was not as poor as commonly reported, represents a good return for the IRFU’s investment at this early stage.

Joe Schmidt 7/2/2014

Schmidt's enthusiasm during training is obvious.

Source: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

While Luke Fitzgerald has played no part in Ireland’s Six Nations campaign on the pitch, he has been involved in the training camps and is therefore well placed to judge the difference between Leinster’s Joe Schmidt and Ireland’s Joe Schmidt.

“I’d say he’s even more intense, if possible,” said Fitzgerald. “I’d say it’s pretty self-professed, and I’m not going to say control freak. He likes the control, he likes to put the stamp on things every day and that’s a big part of what makes his teams so good.
I’d say he doesn’t like having those periods where he doesn’t have control over what guys are doing. I’d say he might have stepped up a gear even more.”

Out-half Jonny Sexton doesn’t feel that Schmidt has made any drastic alterations in his tactical approach, pointing out that elements of Leinster’s style of rugby during their time together at the province perhaps went under-appreciated or even unnoticed.

Ireland’s maul is a clear strength now, as is their line-out platform, and Sexton feels both were part of what made Leinster a European powerhouse too. Alongside that set-piece focus has been Schmidt’s continued focus on playing to space.

“I think the fundamentals of his coaching style have remained the same,” said Sexton. “He gives you the licence to go out and play the game as you see it, but he’s also clever enough to know that you have to play differently against different teams.

“You saw that against Wales. It wasn’t as if we ran everything against them and we never did that at Leinster. I think we always tried to kick cleverly as well [at Leinster]. We try to kick to retain possession as well as to try to put the other team under pressure.”

Joe Schmidt and Brian O'Driscoll

Schmidt discusses tactics with Brian O'Driscoll.

Source: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Sexton went on to highlight that part of the plan against Wales was to “turn them whenever possible,” but that kicking was not the only aspect of the attacking intention. However, the obvious weakness in Warren Gatland’s team was clear and Schmidt’s in-game messages to his players were to pursue the space behind the front-line defence.

One aspect of the Ireland’s performances in recent weeks that has frustrated Schmidt has been their inability to complete first-phase strike moves from scrums and line-outs. There are a number of reasons Schmidt’s backs have not been able to carry out their pre-rehearsed plays in that area, but improvement is needed.

Sexton insists that having those moves saved up is an advantage, given that they are ready to be sprung on the English this weekend.

We had a lot of stuff prepped against Wales, stuff like playing off first-phase that we wanted to use, but for whatever reason things just didn’t come off. A couple of line-outs that came off the top didn’t really work out. They just charged through and blocked the pass from nine to 10.

“We probably haven’t shown our hand a great deal, which is a positive from our point of view. Obviously we have some moves prepped that we haven’t used yet. Hopefully we can pick the ones that might work against England.”

It would indeed be encouraging to see Schmidt’s Ireland adding another string to their attacking bow this weekend. Stuart Lancaster’s England are powerful, well-organised and focused, but there are many reasons for Irish supporters to be optimistic that Schmidt’s development as an international coach has their team heading in the right direction.

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