herald

Sunday 17 December 2017

Keith Wood: Irish boss is centre stage at the Six Nations

Ireland are lucky to have a perfectionist like Schmidt at helm who has delivered the goods so far

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt and Robbie Henshaw, left, during squad training
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt and Robbie Henshaw, left, during squad training

Over the last number of years we have become used to the preamble of the Six Nations being all about one name. O'Driscoll's presence guaranteed box office, skill and excitement and teased us to the lofty thoughts of hope and victory.

He is not on our screens for this championship and although there are many conversations going on over who will be his successor in the number 13 jersey, the box office mantel has passed onto a very different character.

It is rare that the central role in a Six Nations revolves around a coach and not on the world-class players at his disposal. Teams win matches, players score tries and kick goals, but this year it isn't a players name that is cropping up everywhere. Joe Schmidt, Ireland Head Coach, is front and centre.

The players talk of his work ethic, of his professionalism, but mostly of his meticulousness. I have met him a few times, in a few different guises, but I wouldn't pretend to know him well.

I find him a curious blend of character types - confident yet unassuming, stern yet easy going, relaxed yet driven. He is quite serious, speaks with a New Zealand monotone, has a quiet intensity. But there is a sparkle to him when he discusses the game. He absolutely loves it.

When he got the Irish job, he betrayed no doubts that he would be up to the task, but rather a worry about how he would fill his time. He had been accustomed in the previous five years to dealing with players on a day to day basis.

A poor performance at club level could be rectified in a week, a chance to get immediately back on the horse. Internationally it could be three months before you see your players again. He had been in control of his players, now there is a provincial filter to work through.

In his previous incarnation he would have objected strenuously to anybody telling him what he could or could not do with his players, now this is his hand to play to others. There is an element of poacher turned gamekeeper in becoming national coach.

His worries about filling his time have proven not to have been an issue, rather they have become a strength that plays into his meticulous even obsessive nature.

A well-organised man will fill his time and Schmidt has been very fruitful with his. He uses the extra time as an opportunity to delve through all the possible eventualities and maximise and devise appropriate game plans for the players he has at his disposal. You might think that that is a coach's job and yet it seems that Schmidt has taken this to a whole new level.

This level would lead me to a type of madness, of countlessly devising all the permutations to the nth degree, but it sits comfortably on Schmidt's shoulders. To be honest it suits his personality and the impression from the outside is that he relentlessly goes through the options but doesn't double guess his decisions.

So although it is rare that we talk on a coach solely, it seems appropriate. I'm intrigued as to how Schmidt and Ireland will manage this Six Nations.

I was very critical of his selection in the autumn. I felt picking two No 15's (wannabe 13s) at 12 and 13 was an unnecessary risk. It was our first big game post O'Driscoll and I thought the coach had fluffed his lines.

Boy, did I get that wrong! His selection played the way he wanted, to a structure that he dictated. At no stage in the game were his centre pairing's inexperience exposed.

In some ways that has been his immediate impact-making commentators and fans alike take nothing for granted, and forcing them to put away any preconceived notions.

It is as if he has turned the tables and the pressure is on us to figure out, what the hell is he going to do next?

Promoted articles

Entertainment News