This was the Joe Schmidt show and because of that a lot of people hoped for the best. The Kiwi seems an intense, genuine man who cares about what he does and who has a lot of integrity. Riding shotgun with him were Les Kiss, the affable Aussie headed to Ulster and Simon Easterby, the Yorkshireman with sixty five caps for Ireland.
Kiss was charged with defence so must have been very disappointed to concede 43 points in his final game. Initially appointed by Declan Kidney, Kiss was popular with both players and media and contributed to three championship wins (from a grand total of ten) in his seven seasons with the team.
While I think that he’ll be missed in camp, it is difficult to keep the message fresh after that long in the job and the fact that he’s going to Ulster is good for Irish rugby as he is a proven operator, familiar with the Irish game and has a very good working relationship with the national coach.
Rugby coaching is a peripatetic job so Kiss must be pretty happy to be able to spend so long in one country. Coaches from the southern hemisphere seem far more prepared to move and I find it difficult to imagine Eric Elwood going to Ulster never mind someone like Anthony Foley. Irish rugby has tended to appoint antipodeans or from within e.g. Doak at Ulster, Foley at Munster, Cullen at Leinster and Elwood at Connacht.
Kiss’s role on the other hand seems a good fit. I’m not quite sure about the distinction between head coach and director of rugby but it appears a useful role to keep a lot of know-how in the game. Kiss explained that “Part of my brief is to mentor and help indigenous coaches to develop and understand how they can go forward and build a good career out of coaching. It’s not an easy game and there’s a lot of things for Doakie to learn for sure but I’m still learning, it never stops. I’m still learning myself. I’m looking forward to the relationship. Joe (Schmidt) has added another flavour to the organisation. I will step in and obviously I just asked everyone not to step back and wait for some void to be filled. I trust what they have done and I will work with them and hopefully we can together find the solutions we need to on a weekly basis.”
As noted above, Easterby has a storied Irish career and a track record as a coach but never in Ireland. Ireland’s forwards were competitive but not as cohesive as when under Plumtree. They also over-committed themselves to rucks consistently which looked part of a plan. All too often Ireland had a forward at the ruck doing very little which meant that they were under-resourced elsewhere. His appointment gives the ticket both international experience and an Irish flavour although Easterby has no provincial allegiance. A feature of Easterby during the tournament was his seeming disdain for routine media duties, or perhaps just Gavin Cummiskey. Given that he is married to a rugby journalist, Easterby must be well aware of how that side of the game works. It is a factor to keep in mind about stepping up to the head coach role and one of the reasons why it’s such a draining job.
But enough of Sideshow Easterbunny, ain’t no show like a Joe Show. World Cups are tough for Irish coaches, Lens did for Gatland, Fast Eddie was a dead duck (in a row) after the 2007 debacle and it was a grim, downward spiral for Kidney after topping the group in 2011. With such high expectations, the proximity of the tournament to Ireland and with the draw Ireland received, what could go wrong with #TrustInJoe at the helm?
Quite a bit as it turned out, as Ireland’s well documented injuries reached almost Welsh proportions. If Ireland had Sexton, Payne and one of the forwards available, it would have been a different game against Argentina and I think we’d have won. At 23-20 I thought we were going to win. Schmidt didn’t get that break and the Argentinian game was the latest QF exit for Ireland.
It led to questions about Ireland’s lack of intensity in some games under Schmidt (Australia ‘13, Wales ‘15, Argentina ‘15), typically at the start, and the higgledy-piggledy positional selections in the back line. All of this is and was dog-bites-man stuff. We wrote before the tournament that “Schmidt gets criticised for the conservative nature of his game plan but the Irish squad isn’t overflowing with deft handlers and he can’t be blamed for this, the players are like that by the time they get to him.” Going back further than this we wrote ‘the overseas’ view of Irish rugby 16 years into professionalism and six European Cups later still tends toward “great passion at the start; contain for one hour; run out of steam; pints of the black stuff”. I think what hurt Irish supporters was not getting that passion at the start and losing to an Argentinian team which, by contrast, was full of bronca in the forwards, dashing machismo out wide and the Sanchez-Hernandez enganche pulling the strings in the middle. If we’d lost late to South Africa or New Zealand after a ding-dong contest then we’d find solace in a heroic quarter final exit. But it would’ve still been the quarter finals. The worst crime for Irish rugby fans is “no passion”, and it probably always will be, but passion on its own is not a philosophy.
One of my beliefs is that a person’s weaknesses are also his strengths, they’re the pronounced aspects of personality that give someone character. So Schmidt is very definite about what he wants, believes in his systems and that coaching (educating, really) is the way to improve. Our review in Age of Aquarius basically boiled down to Cheika being the better risk taker, Schmidt the most capable utiliser of resources and O’Connor being a backward step.
Schmidt trusted proven performers with some of his selections, despite concern over fitness and form (Cian Healy and Tommy Bowe), who didn’t perform as well as their understudies (Jack McGrath and Luke Fitzgerald). I believe he really thought that he could make a test centre out of Keith Earls and bring Darren Cave up to scratch given time and that coaching would prove to be the difference. The team started slowly against Italy and Argentina, missing the intensity beloved by Irish fans. My criticism of Schmidt is that he is not an instinctively good selector and he places too much emphasis on technical proficiency rather than infusing the team with a spiritual jolt, the likes of which Gatland got from Mick Galwey and Trevor Brennan.
And that’s about it and even then I’m reaching really, I think he’s the best coach Ireland have had and as long as he does the job then the team will develop.
On the positive side of the ledger, we beat France in the match that they had targeted and when their game plan was about stopping us. France! I grew up watching Irish rugby in the 80s and 90s when playing France was a certain defeat with the only silver lining that you might see them score a try of scintillating brilliance unthought of at home. A period that covered the 24 years from 1985 to 2009 that Ireland failed to win a championship, the longest run for any of the teams. Let’s be honest here, Irish rugby was pretty useless and here we are beating France and them being worried that we would. I don’t place too much stock in the NZ result, France can capitulate spectacularly when they’re beaten but they were really up for the Irish game. And Ireland lost their captain as well as their general in the first half of that game and still won. That Schmidt could create that scenario speaks volumes for the work that he’s done.
If not quite the consensus view, one of the dominant pieces of commentary that followed in the wake of the tournament was Matt William’s “The Irish tactics were the same as taking a knife to a gun fight. The gameplan was a dinosaur. The game has evolved.”
I didn’t get this angle. The coach who had the most success with a provincial team playing a game based on width and passing was, er, Joe Schmidt. Even Michael Cheika, rewarded as Coach of the Year after Australia reached the final, didn’t have his Leinster teams achieving success with the same elan and consistency as Schmidt. In fact, Cheika’s legacy at Leinster was to introduce a hard-nosed competitive edge to front five play that set the foundation for what came afterwards. So let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, you still need a competitive front five to put you on the front foot in order to play that sort of game, and you always will. And if you don’t have players with the necessary level of pace, physicality, skill and awareness then you won’t be able to play an expansive, penetrative game at the top level.
In Ireland, coaching the national team has been the peak of achievement and has usually been the end of active involvement which seems like a bit of waste and reflective of the fact that Ireland has tended to rely more on passion than philosophy for any success. Passion is great, its necessary, but constantly going to an emotional well is draining and ultimately unsustainable. In keeping with that, it appears that some energy and drive goes out of people once they’ve coached at the highest level and that the path of least resistance is to take up media work.
Kiss’s move is a notable deviation from that although Niall O’Donovan should also be mentioned at this point as he returned to Munster in a management capacity after coaching Ireland’s forwards, bringing knowledge of every level of Irish adult rugby with him. Kiss’s take on what the national team faced was that “It’s evident there for the last number of years that they (southern hemisphere teams) had a good handle of the basics. They demand of their players that they know the core role but it doesn’t stop there. They demand that they develop the other skill-sets. Their skill-sets are worked on to the point that they feel confident in those situations. That’s on an individual basis but also collectively. They build a confidence in terms of how they want to play and execute it fully.” There’s nothing earth shattering there except that Kiss has seen it in evidence at the sharp end, he’s analysed exactly what these teams do in attack as much as anyone on the planet and he doesn’t want the national job. I think this is really important; that he’s not going to be interested in taking credit for things going well in Ulster with a view to getting a promotion to the Ireland job. Recycling that expertise into provincial rugby is of huge benefit to the game in Ireland and something that hasn’t happened much before.
I remember Mick Doyle and his triple crown, his heart attack and using his Sunday Indo pulpit to goad Franno, who sued him and eventually inherited his column. Jimmy Davidson took over after a decade of dominance with Ulster then moved to BBC Norn Iron. Ciaran Fitz introduced some exciting players and almost beat eventual world champions Australia but couldn’t get the results as a coach that he got as a captain. I can’t remember why he left, probably due to work, but he was succeeded by Gerry Murphy, a back line specialist who is still involved with the Leinster Branch. Eddie O’Sullivan was in Biarritz recently and America before that. He was linked to the Munster backs job a few years ago which is the closest that any Irish coach has been to returning to the professional game. Kidney is in academia in Cork.
I think if and when Schmidt leaves the Irish job that there’ll be no shortage of offers for his services, be it in France, England or NZ. Is it possible that he could leave the national job and reappear at one of the provinces, if maybe not immediately then after a recuperative hiatus? Having got our hands on him, it would seem a waste not to get the most from one of the finest rugby minds in the world. And, if he left, who would replace him, Matt Williams? The RFU’s recent trawl has shown that there isn’t a surplus of proven, hungry coaches available even if you have deep pockets.