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Monday 18 December 2017

Wood: Schmidt has had answer to every problem he faced

Intelligence and ability to adapt have defined Ireland's campaign

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Picture: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Picture: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

It's hard enough to take in what we have witnessed over the last month and yet I can't remember ever having such a warm sense of achievement in an autumn series. The doubts I had going into the series - about our untried centres, our lack of match practice our tighthead had, our ever increasing injury list - were all clinically put to rest.

It is hard to resist the ubiquitous Joe Schmidt love-in because he set the plan perfectly for what was delivered and he deserves the plaudits.

The centres are novices - well then let's play a style where their lack of experience in attack cannot become a factor . . . no passing please!

A chance of getting exposed in the outside channel? Not on your life, blitz defence for everyone.

Injuries? We don't want them but we can deal with them. The cohort of leaders have to carry extra weight and take the pressure off the newcomers.

And we have never before had such a series where the leaders delivered en masse.

The most heartening aspect of the autumn was that it wasn't perfect. Plenty went wrong, mistakes were made, our attacking game was short on verve and of course we still have that epic injury list.

When Schmidt finally smiles without pain after his appendectomy, he will reflect that he has a lot of work still to do and, of course, a huge selection dilemma when all his injured players come back.

PRAGMATIC

Schmidt is pragmatic and for most coaches, that's a word most likely used as a slur. Not in the New Zealander's case, however. Here is a club coach used to constant interaction with his players and now denied that opportunity on the international stage.

But he uses this extra time for plotting. It doesn't drive him crazy, well at least we don't get to see it if it does, but he seems to use this time to be exact, fastidious and yes, pragmatic.

It's as if he is draughting many possible outcomes and preparing a plan to cover the most likely.

I find it intriguing and a world away from most of the preparation that went in by coaches in my career.

It is an obsessive level of detail. And it works because Schmidt also has the skill to get his players to buy into the process.

That process varies from game to game and we have seen a few versions over the three games.

The ability to be incredibly physical against a South African team that had out-muscled the mighty All Blacks.

The ability to radically change the team for the match against Georgia, show no complacency and still deliver a large victory.

ingenious

And finally, the ability to out-think the most subtle and ingenious back division in the world and close out with a stunning victory.

So to be honest, I'm very comfortable with all the superlatives been cast Schmidt's way.

It is, however, the players that play the game, that win the match. Four players deserve special mention.

Sexton and Murray have become the best half-back combination I've seen in an Irish jersey.

Their play has been excellent and complementary but it is their assured leadership that has been the most telling.

They frame the way Ireland go about their play, and if one is under pressure the other takes up the mantle.

It is a seamless transition and I believe is a key factor as to why they are both so mentally aware at the end of matches. A problem shared.

Jamie Heaslip has had an exceptional series. He has marshalled an unlikely seven in Ruddock and a fearless but match-raw O'Mahony through very different games.

He has been constant and even if Brian O'Driscoll disagrees with me, I believe Heaslip is playing at a step above this season.

And finally no commentary on Ireland can pass without some words on Paul O'Connell.

If you have the game recorded have a look at the last seven minutes against Australia, but just keep your eye on O'Connell.

It is a study in leadership, in sacrifice and on the pursuit of excellence.

It is a study on the will to win. With that present in the side, it's hard not to feel the glow of achievement.

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