MOST Scots will be familiar with former Leinster chief Joe Schmidt when they pitch up in Dublin next weekend, but as the New Zealander prepares to take the Ireland reins for his first Six Nations Championship he admitted that it may be in a more sober state that normal.
Normal, that is, compared with previous Six Nations days in the Irish capital. There is little doubt that the coach has been one of the most astute tactical coaches when leading Leinster to an unprecedented haul of four RaboDirect Pro12, Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup trophies in a three-year term at the province’s helm. And certainly sober.
But the same could not be said for his previous trips to the Aviva when the Six Nations kicks off. “My view on the Six Nations was that this is kind of an event, not just a game of rugby,” he said, recalling not only recent years in Ireland but also his introduction to Irish culture when he played club rugby in the Emerald Isle in the 1990s.
“There was a whole day out aspect to it; at least that’s how I used to do it. I’d watch the early game at a public house and then you’d get to the Ireland game at the Aviva and have a great time. There’d be an atmosphere there and a buzz, and it was a heck of a lot of fun.
“I’m hopeful other people can continue to enjoy it that way and there might be a little bit of celebration afterwards, but for me now to be honest it’s going to be a pretty nerve-wracking time. It’s a massive competition and there’s a lot of public expectation. Inevitably, if you’re involved in a national team there’s a lot of personal expectation within the camp and yourself. You work as hard as you can and then you lose control and hope that things go well and you get a result, but it’s funny. It’s a job where you get to work really hard and then the product gets put out there and you have no control over the quality of the product, whether it be the conditions, guys getting knocks or guys who don’t have great days at the office and then suddenly you’re reeling and trying to get yourself back on the horse.”
Schmidt took over the Ireland job last year after the team became a bit stale in five years with Declan Kidney, culminating in last year’s fifth place in the championship, level with France but not bottom courtesy of a slightly better points differential. Like Kidney he comes from a teaching background, returning from his playing stint in Ireland to become a headteacher in New Zealand and then coaching the New Zealand Schools.
He moved into coaching full-time with Bay of Plenty and then Auckland, who had been none too pleased at losing the Ranfurly Shield to his side, and in 2007 was head-hunted by former Auckland coach Vern Cotter to work as his backs coach at Clermont Auvergne. He helped Cotter steer the French side into two Top 14 finals before clinching the trophy for the first time in the club’s history in 2010. That was the cue for Leinster to move and he returned to Ireland, to take over from Michael Cheika.
Three years, six finals and four trophies later and he was handed the Ireland reins and almost pulled off a first-ever win for the nation over his home country in November. Leading 22-17 with a minute to go, Ryan Crotty scored for the All Blacks to draw level. The first conversion attempt by Aaron Cruden missed the target, but some Irish players had charged early, and it was re-taken and Cruden this time made sure to send howls of anguish echoing across Ireland.
It was still a great Ireland performance, albeit for the final minute, but Schmidt wants his side to use it to effect a mindshift. Not to sit back and pat themselves on the back for coming close, but to take from that experience the belief that they should head into the Six Nations as favourites to win every game.
“It probably gives you a little bit of confidence,” he acknowledged, “but it also adds to the expectation. And expectation is good. I wouldn’t be a fan of being the underdog. People can get very comfortable with the underdog tag but I think it’s important that players get comfortable with being the favourite. It’s one of the things we did at Leinster. There was a bit of a mindshift to where the players became more comfortable if they were favourites and expected to win. Hopefully, the All Blacks game can spirit a bit of that and the disappointment can be channelled into increased effort and concentration to be able to deliver that sort of performance that can make us competitive.”
But he knows what is coming next Sunday, the methodical coach that he is having already studied the Scotland line-up he expects to see in Dublin, and he warns Ireland against taking Scott Johnson’s side lightly. He said: “I know most of the players reasonably well from being in Europe for the past seven years, and I think they have a really well-balanced squad.
“You wouldn’t want to give them too much time and space in the back three. I think Stuart Hogg is a super player. His kicking game has come on as well – he kicked one from his own 22 last weekend and it went dead, which was a massive kick.
“Sean Maitland, Sean Lamont ... and Dougie Fife has really done a good job. Obviously, they’ll miss Tim Visser. But Greig Laidlaw I think is one of the smartest guys playing rugby right now. He’s a great game manager.
“In the back row you’ve got Kelly Brown, but Chris Fusaro is a very tough guy to move off the ball, Johnnie Beattie’s had a great season so far with Montpellier, Dave Denton gives them really good strong ball-carrying and Rob Harley is difficult to get rid of in the contact area.
“They have a massive second row, one super athlete and one big strong man, and I think there is a good complement there between Jim Hamilton and Richie Gray, and Jonny Gray is coming on really well. They are having to move on a bit in the front row, with guys like Geoff Cross and Ryan Grant going well, and Ross Ford is such a big, strong man.
“I’ve missed out the midfield and you have a good mix there with Matt Scott back from injury and Alex Dunbar a good, strong kid who’s coming to the fore, and Nick de Luca, who is a very accomplished player. So it’s quite hard to say where you attack them. It’s a great game to kick-off the Six Nations with and though it’s a bit different for me this time like everyone in Ireland I’m looking forward to it.”
THE SCOTSMAN RUGBY SHOW IN ASSOCIATION WITH GINGER GROUSE