Saturday 20 January 2018

Schmidt solace in solid Irish defence

The frustrated perfectionist is wary of Ireland's tight six-day turnaround

Joe Schmidt talks to Jonathan Sexton during squad training at
Carton House, Maynooth. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt talks to Jonathan Sexton during squad training at Carton House, Maynooth. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt is a man who trades on organisation and as close to certainty as possible.

It is just his nature.

The New Zealander has had to compromise both of these pillars of his personality and work ethic on the lead-in to Paris on Saturday.

The projected return of Rob Kearney, Simon Zebo's swollen knee and Keith Earls adherence to the return-to-play protocols meant uncertainty of selection right up until midday yesterday.

"That's probably as much of the frustration as anything else is the uncertainty," he said.

"I think if we had a window with absolute certainty, you can cope better.

"It's not perfect. It is what it is and I know the players don't reflect on that too much."

Schmidt is a worrier and a perfectionist, two of the main factors that feed into his brilliance as a career coach.

There is nothing like the French laissez-faire attitude to professionalism and logic to keep you up all night.

And Schmidt doesn't sleep well at the best of times.

France coach Guy Noves had the benefit of one week with his players before he picked his team to play Italy.

At least, they would be better for the experience and the time together this week.

Think again. Noves announced six changes.

Go figure!

"I have coached teams against Guy in at least seven occasions in Top 14 matches, probably even more than that," shared Schmidt.

"We played them in a (European) semi-final and a quarter-final when I was with Leinster as well.

"You kind of know what to expect. You know that there will be a flexibility in how they will play.

"You know that the individuals will be given the responsibility, but also the freedom, to play."

The trademark of Toulouse under Noves was always the joie de vivre of their offloading game.

Schmidt's thought on this elite skill is a window into Ireland's low number of them.

"I think offloads either have the propensity to be incredibly beneficial or a bit of a nightmare.

"You get one or another," he said.

"When a team has first come together, it's quite hard to get that syncronicity of someone running the right line, someone knowing where they're going to be.

"If you have combinations that are set for quite some time, you tend to be able to find those connections a lot better."

Schmidt reached into his mental notebook to contrast the virtue with the vice.

"France were very high offloaders at the World Cup as well," he added.

"They had only a few less than the All Blacks in their game against them and yet the scores were very disparate because one team knew where each other were and had more successful ones.

"If you get a successful one away it can be massively advantageous, because the defence aren't really set.

"They're setting for another phase, whereas you're continuing the phase and that can allow you to break the line."

This is when the old French flair can come into play.

Ireland will find solace from the fact that Wales did not create a single line-break at the Aviva last Saturday.

This is not too bad for a country without a defence coach.

"The one thing I'd say for our players is that at one stage we defended for four minutes and 20 seconds continuously against Wales and they didn't break our line."

It must have mended part of the psychological problem that emanated from the porous performance against Argentina in the World Cup quarter-final.

"For us, that was a massive test of our defence, particularly after the disappointments in the previous Test that the players acquitted themselves and worked really hard."

The idea of being ready to deal with each French individual threat in detail is out the window.

Even Schmidt admitted to surprise at the inclusion of Teddy Thomas and showed a hint of disappointment at the promotion of Maxime Mermoz at centre, a player Schmidt clearly admires from his years at Clermont-Auvergne.

All of this points towards Ireland worrying about what they have to do rather than spending hours on what France will do.

"What we have tried to do this week is focus a little bit more in ourselves, trying to make sure that whatever does come our way that we are as well organised as we can be to combat it," he said.

When all is said and done, that is all you can do against an unfamiliar an relatively unknown France.

France: M Medard; T Thomas, M Mermoz, J Danty, V Vakatawa; J Plisson, S Bezy; J Poirot, G Guirado (capt), U Atonio, A Flanquart, Y Maestri, W Lauret, Y Camara, D Chouly.

Ireland: R Kearney; A Trimble, J Payne, R Henshaw, D Kearney; J Sexton, C Murrray; J McGrath, R Best (capt), N White, M McCarthy, D Toner, CJ Stander, S O'Brien, J Heaslip.

Verdict: Ireland

France v Ireland, tomorrow (KO 2.25, Irish time), live RTÉ 2

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