It’s five-and-a-half years since Joe Schmidt, rushing towards a door to be on time for a Leinster team captain’s run, momentarily let his guard down when asked by media what his immediate thought was when IRFU chief Philip Browne said he would succeed Declan Kidney as Ireland coach.
‘The first thing I thought was, “What have I got myself into?” I can’t be any more honest than that. We all have a little fear of the unknown. I feel like I know the game reasonably well. I’ve lived and breathed it for the bulk of my years, and certainly in the last 12, but this is a whole different ball game.’
A whole different ball game Schmidt has grown very accustomed to. How comfortable the Ireland boss is in his own skin is epitomised by the seamless way he operates with his assistants.
Look at the opening line of last week’s latest emailed squad announcement. It read: ‘The Ireland coaching group have announced a 42-player squad’ rather than ‘Joe Schmidt has announced’.
Schmidt’s support staff policy is simple. ‘There’s a danger of clutter. Too many chefs spoil the broth. You want a good, tight group who are complementary with different strengths.’
Identities of some have changed during his reign. Simon Easterby succeeded John Plumtree in 2014. Andy Farrell took over from Les Kiss the following year. But the philosophy remains unchanged. A complementary tight group who don’t hesitate sharing knowledge.
It would be very easy to hide behind Lansdowne Road red tape and remain aloof from the rest of the sport in Ireland. Instead, they’re frequently selfless with their time, regularly briefing fellow professional and grassroots rugby coaches on how they efficiently go about their business.
Word, image, action is the unambiguous, collective message whenever ‘Si’, ‘Feeky’ (Greg Feek), ‘Faz’ and ‘Richie’ (Murphy) accompany Schmidt to coaching seminars where much footage used for illustrative purposes is of the All Blacks in action.
‘You have got to win that last metre,’ explained Schmidt about a tackler heading into contact with a ball carrier. ‘I know that these guys [New Zealand] are very good at it. That is why there is a fair bit of them in this.’
Schmidt’s repartee is infectious. Minus cue cards or notes, he speaks for practically at hour unchecked at these presentations, his video snippets interspersed with numerous entertaining vignettes.
‘The first thing is we are solutions-based, not excuse-based,’ he stressed at one seminar, explaining his approach to the onerous task of successfully running a national team.
‘It’s funny, I coached a guy in this room when he was at school. He said: “I still remember what you said about good players take bad passes”.
‘I still remember saying that the first time I was in Leinster, the whole room going quiet because I said it to Drico (Brian O’Driscoll). I didn’t realise he was king of Ireland at the time.
‘Everyone went quiet but fair play to Drico, he bailed me out and said, “Yeah, you’re right. I can take that” because Darce (Gordon D’Arcy) had thrown him a low pass against Treviso. One of our gory moments.’
No nonsense, immediate feedback is the way of the Irish training ground. ‘We always try to bring a real energy and an eye to training because energy is something that is contagious and is reciprocated by players.
‘If you’re going to get some enthusiasm and concentration out of them, then you bring that energy. You be excited about what you’re delivering because you want them to be excited about the game.
‘It’s not about how much (training), it’s about how efficient. It’s not about doing more, it’s being more effective in the less amount of time that you have got. And it’s about keeping it funny.
‘Our players enjoy training. They enjoy it because there is a bit of a buzz, a bit of tempo, a competitive element. There is a bit of pressure and they enjoy being put under that pressure.
‘You’re always bringing the eye. “You missed that clean-out”. “You’re legs are straight”. “You’re not in a strong position to make that clean-out”. “You and your ball carrier have just gone straight to ground and there is no movement, no dynamism on the ground”. Picking those little things up as play is happening makes a massive difference because the best feedback is immediate.
‘What you want to build is players who can self-solve. So if they miss that tackle they know in their feet they didn’t load well enough, they dropped their head too early, that if they stay big they would control the time and space between them and the attacker.
‘They know the quality of the pass wasn’t great because all the weight was on the inside leg and they know by the arc of the ball they weren’t balanced. You want to try and build self-solving rugby players and you want them to get excited about being as accurate as they can be.’
How do Grand Slam Ireland go about repeatedly achieving this? They generally keep it simple, placing premium on exercises like the L-drill where players get and give passes under pressure.
‘Look at this,’ said Schmidt, showing passes that led to a try. ‘To a lock, to a prop, to a hooker, to a full-back to a seven to a try. Everyone has got to be able to do it. Everyone has a position-specific role but everyone has a responsibility to be proficient in everything we do.’
Being tidy in the clear out. ‘It’s about discipline and making sure you don’t disadvantage your team by swinging or chicken-winging your way through a contact.’
Exploiting space. ‘We have to keep controlling the defenders.’
Reacting on the floor. ‘You have got to be dynamic enough to let the ball out despite them holding on to you.’
About feeling the play. ‘If it works players know what they did. That muscle memory is logged and if you encourage that, you say “spot on”, “great pass”, “good option”, “great timing”, then you’re giving them that feedback.
‘We talk about margins all the time and you’re trying to build them so that suddenly they give you the yard that you need.
‘I’m not a massive fan of drills where they are so intricate that guys are going all over the place and they aren’t forced to read cues, they’re reacting to a colour of the cone or a call from the coach.
‘What you want is you want them reading cues. You want them as self-solvers. They have got to play the game. You want them to be as independent of you as a coach as you can possibly make them.’
Independence should be useful given Ireland’s limited prep time together for next Saturday’s November series opener in Chicago versus Italy.
It’s this time of year when Ireland’s win ratio is at its strongest. Breaking the New Zealander’s 58-match reign into four segments, 10 of 13 November fixtures have been won for a 76.9 percent figure.
That eclipses the 72.7 percent for June summer games (eight wins in 11), 72.0 percent for Six Nations (18 wins in 25) and 66.9 percent for World Cup prep and tournament (six wins in nine).
Taking those numbers as a barometer, expect Italy, Argentina and USA in the series finale to be all picked off in the Saturdays ahead, leaving the Irish nation focused on that game three visit to Dublin by the All Blacks.
Schmidt supporters can’t wait to see what unfolds. With the world’s No1 ranking potentially at stake, he will have more than his arm up his sleeve in readiness for Steve Hansen and co.
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