Peter O’Reilly reported a few interesting quotes in one of his pieces at the weekend. Both were from Leinster men and both reinforced a point that the Mole has held since hearing proposals that Joe Schmidt turn up at Irish sessions and run the lads through a few moves.
First up is Greg Feek, talking about his decision to concentrate on his Leinster coaching duties at the expense of his work with the national team: “Personally, it was something like 46 games in 12 months last year and that’s a lot. I felt and Leinster felt that you need to get some continuity, and doing the week in, week out with Leinster and growing your coaching is something I thought would be beneficial for me.”
The reason this struck a chord in particular is that a number of voices in the media have been calling for Joe Schmidt to become involved with the national team. Most prominent among them have been Tony Ward and Keith Wood and the argument runs along the lines of a) Joe Schmidt is a good backs coach b) Ireland’s backs don’t play particularly well when coached by Declan Kidney c) Joe Schmidt is paid by the IRFU so wouldn’t it make sense for him to show up and give the lads a few moves to run through.
Over the last decade or so, many voices have exhorted people to ‘think outside the box’ because that, it seems, is where good ideas come from. I’m happy to do my thinking inside the box on this one. Joe Schmidt has a job, it’s coaching Leinster. It’s a time consuming, stressful job and he doesn’t need any distractions from it. While the IRFU pay him, they pay him to coach Leinster, not to roam the land spreading the gospel of slick passing and correct alignment.
Brian O’Driscoll then has a quote about the national team’s requirements, particularly in relation to attack. It sounds that Joe’s voice would help matters, but not in the current set up.
“We just need to get clarity on who the point of reference is for our attacking game. In New Zealand, we could have gotten our detail a little better. We’ve got to look at making sure that everyone is getting the same message. But, when you have Declan overseeing things, Les [Kiss] doing the backs, Gert doing the forwards and Les also doing defence and you want to ask a particular question about an area of general attack, there’s a number of different people that you could go to there. One thing I’ve learned is that you can get away with certain things at provincial level. But your detail has to be very, very accurate at international level. Otherwise you get shown up.”
There’s no surprise in what O’Driscoll says, it’s the same thing as many commentators have been claiming for months now. The surprise is that he said it. O’Driscoll’s surgery seemed to go extremely well last season and while the Lions series is definitely on his radar, it is possible that he has set his sights beyond that and is considering extending his career as his mind and body allow. In that light, his fortunes are in many ways tied to the national coaching panel and if they’re not going to provide the right environment for him, the King of Irish rugby will have to seek and exert his influence.
Which brings me to the second point of the ill-considered Joe’n’Deccie campaign. What would happen if Schmidt were to show up and become the dominant voice in the squad sessions? Why would Kidney be required and why wouldn’t Schmidt take over the national team and leave Leinster? It doesn’t seem to me to be a story with a happy ending and its one best left untold.
Besides that, Schmidt has problems of his own right now. A combination of injuries, uninspiring signings and national call ups has led to another slow start for Leinster. While this has been a feature of his tenure, it can’t be assumed that everything will just work out. A few weeks ago, we wrote about the fact that it wasn’t good that Connacht packed less punch than Leinster’s 2.5 team. Direct comparison proved that wasn’t the case and the 34-6 drubbing experienced in the west must have caused some second thoughts about a number of players’ ability to perform at the top level.
Leinster miss the ball carrying of Sean O’Brien and the decision making of Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss. Their Heineken Cup pool contains difficult games against Llanelli and Clermont and the match against Munster is significant for both teams as Penney and Schmidt lock horns for the first time in Northern Hemisphere competition.
Munster ‘s ongoing transition will benefit from Rob Penney’s influence and he looks a good choice as coach. The initial reaction to his style of rugby has been positive but a loss against Leinster, on the back of another defeat to the Ospreys, will cause jitters among the Munster faithful leading into the Heineken Cup. To date, Keatley has looked assured at ten but if Munster lose to Leinster, the clamour will be for O’Gara to start the big game: the old dog for the hard road. How does that compromise Penney, who at some stage will have to make a decision on O’Gara as his pivot?
On the other hand, should Leinster lose at home to Munster, attention will be drawn to cracks in the European champion’s armour, be they real or imagined. Comparisons will be made with Ulster, bulwarked by a strong set of overseas players, with Ruan Pienaar set to be reintroduced upon conclusion of the Championship. Tommy Bowe looks set to get into double figures this season while Jared Payne is an exciting addition. In much the same manner as last year though it is John Afoa who is the main man for Ulster. His presence reduces the opportunity for Irish tight heads but is vital for Ulster. Leinster v Munster may be the biggest game in the league but it is the northern province that is setting the pace.
Competition for the top four will be strong this year and one of Ulster, Munster, Leinster, Llanelli and Ospreys will definitely lose out. The Dragons comprehensive victory against Edinburgh, Connacht’s trouncing of Leinster and Treviso’s turning over of Llanelli indicates that the Rabo has a higher level of competition than it is sometimes given credit for. There will be a few twists and turns to this season.