Six Nations: Gentleman Joe Schmidt is man to fear

New Zealander Joe Schmidt has been a success in Ireland. Photograph: PA
New Zealander Joe Schmidt has been a success in Ireland. Photograph: PA
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Ireland coach has a fine reputation as a man but his superb record as a coach is what will worry Scotland

A FRENCH journalist I know is an old acquaintance of Ireland coach Joe Schmidt from his time as Vern Cotter’s sidekick at Clermont and he called the Kiwi “the biggest gentleman I have ever met in rugby”.

Schmidt is quite small so I think our French friend meant very much the gentleman and, anyway, rather more pertinent is the fact that Schmidt is reckoned to be one of the best coaches operating in the game.

The New Zealander’s appointment was greeted with near universal acclaim within Irish rugby and understandably so. In three short seasons with Leinster, Schmidt won the Heineken Cup twice, the Amlin Challenge Cup and the PRO12. Heady stuff. In November he was 20 seconds from leading Ireland to their first-ever victory over his own home nation and now he has turned his sights on the Six Nations and today’s opponents Scotland.

“I’d say Duncan Weir’s boot,” replied the Irish coach when asked last week where exactly the Scots would threaten his side. “We have to be super disciplined in our own half because he can kick goals from anywhere. He’s got a very long kicking game and, even giving up any cheap penalties in their twenty-two, he’ll put them back into our half.

“I’d certainly say that’s [the threat] and the context of the height he gets on the ball as well with restarts and the field of play because they’ve got some very good chasers who get up nice and high and are strong under the ball.”

On his own side, Schmidt’s main selection headache centred on his twin centres, because Brian O’Driscoll has not been at his best for Leinster and Gordon D’Arcy is arguably boasting the better form of the two. The pair have appeared together a world record 52 times, they teamed up against the All Blacks last time out and many imagined that Schmidt would simply give the twin veterans the nod. Instead he went with Ulster’s in-form No.12, Luke Marshall, possibly because D’arcy is coming back after a stomach bug but possibly because Marshall is the coming man as the coach explained his thinking.

“He’s a really good kid who wants to pick up as much information as he can and then deliver the best performance he can, and what better way to develop him than to play him in between two world class players [Sexton and O’Driscoll] with bucketloads of experience. That was part of our decision-making.”

Meanwhile BOD almighty has consistently argued that this season will be his swansong, although some of the Irish press are wondering out loud whether the lure of a World Cup might persuade him that another few months would make little difference in the grand scheme of things.

The problem is that O’Driscoll may only be in today’s team for the lack of a credible alternative. He is no longer un-droppable, as British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland proved to howls of protest last summer, and the same point was put to Schmidt.

“I think we know each other pretty well and that would be implicit.” admitted the Kiwi. “But there’s a fair bit of respect between us as well. I think he’s a phenomenal player and the intellect he brings to the game and he’s a fantastic guy to have in the environment, to have in the team running out.”

O’Driscoll will become 
Ireland’s most capped player today, overtaking Ronan O’Gara’s 128 appearances when he sets foot on the Aviva this afternoon. He may also have George Gregan’s world record of 139 Test appearances in his sights. Adding in his eight Lions’ caps, O’Driscoll will be on 137 by the close of business today, just two short of matching the Aussie scrum-half.

And still Schmidt will have no hesitation in dropping his talisman should O’Driscoll fall below the standards he has set himself over the years. The coach may well be a “gentleman” but elite sport and sentimentality are anathema to each other and Schmidt did not win back-to-back Heineken Cups by picking players who no longer deliver. The O’Driscoll saga will provide a fascinating subtext to this season’s tournament.