Only one match in, but the tell-tale signs are all there. A new captain has been appointed to take charge at the helm of a ship that has recently sailed on rough waters, and on occasion hit jagged rocks. Jagged rocks found in Edinburgh and Rome for example.But that was then and this is now and this is a run-on sentence.
On the 29th of April 2013, Joe Schmidt was handed the keys to Ireland’s national rugby team, but his first match in charge did not come until the 9th of November. That’s a long time in between. A long time to implement change. Change that was long overdue.But why did we need change? The answer is obvious: Ireland had grown stale. Under the previous head coach, Declan Kidney, we had become predictable, repetitive, monotonous. Teams knew our back moves, our line-out calls, and worst of all, they knew we had lost the impetus to go out and get results. So there we were, and whilst the provincial side of Leinster was tasting the sweet dizzying highs of success, the international setup ate stale haggis and cheap pizza that tasted of old Kidney. It made little sense.
“It should also be noted that with Leinster’s ascension to the throne of European rugby, Munster simultaneously hit the decline, and they hit it hard.”
It should also be noted that with Leinster’s ascension to the throne of European rugby, Munster simultaneously hit the decline, and they hit it hard. This is the team Kidney had left to take over the national job. Could it now be said he’s bad for teams? Does he leave them in a worse state than when he found them? Who knows. Sure the man brought us the Grand Slam in 2009, a feat which Ireland had not achieved in 61 years, but that’s really where the highlights ended. We must forever thank him for 2009, but we must forever judge a manager or head coach on continued success, and Deccie didn’t bring that so he was ousted.
His successor will of course have massive expectation shoveled onto his shoulders. We know that in Ireland the name “Schmidt” is synonymous with “Trophy”, especially in the east, but can we allow ourselves to expect trophies from the Kiwi? Which trophies? A Grand Slam? Who knows.
And if we are to make such radical expectations (like making a team jump from 5th in the Six Nations to 1st in one year) how do we expect him to get there? To me anyway his changes already seem obvious. In the first match against Samoa I saw a team that wanted to run some ball and enjoy their rugby, and it wasn’t the one from the South Pacific Ocean. For example, Paddy Jackson was a boy transformed. On top of his sparkling place kicking display he constantly threatened the gainline and put the ball through the hands like a young Sexton, rather than following Kidney’s plans and becoming the second O’Gara. The kid from Ulster played flowing Leinster rugby that evening. Pure Leinstertainment.
Jack McGrath was the man of the match on his debut, playing like the offspring of a chance encounter between a bull and a bulldozer, and Dave Kearney bagged two tries also on his debut. Schmidt knows where the talent is and what’s more he knows how to nurture it. An incredible change to be seen was in the warm-up for the Samoa game when Schmidt was actually out on the pitch taking part in the drills, throwing the ball around and being part of the action, whereas Kidney was seen thirty meters away preaching not practicing. This is a coach, not a manager, and players will love and benefit hugely from that.
In the past the national team has always consisted of a strong majority of players from the province currently enjoying the most success, and this era looks to be no different. One match into his reign and Ireland sent out 9 Leinster players in the starting 15, with 6 of the 8 substitutes also being from the blue East. Is this bias from Schmidt, being the previous Leinster coach? No. It’s logic. Ireland have players with a flair for running rugby, and this is the rugby being grown and honed and perfected in Leinster then used to slay big opposition, so it’s only logical to export it to the national stage.
Of course we can’t expect this huge blue representation to continue for bigger matches and to be the eternal Marianne of our revolution. Against stronger opposition I believe Toner will leave the team and O’Connell will take his place, but on the other hand I also expect Ulster’s duo of Henry and Jackson to exit, making way for Leinster’s O’Brien and previous Leinster man Jonny Sexton. But it’s not the players I’m excited to see, it’s Schmidt rugby. The genius back plays, the clever lineouts, the split backline behind the scrum, and the intelligent numbers committed to rucks, all these things will be applied to the national team just as they were applied to the Leinster team that won 2 Heineken Cups, a Pro 12 trophy and an Amin Cup in 3 years. It’s a bright future. I’m excited, and you should be too.