2016 In Review: Joe Schmidt’s Report Card
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With the mince pies eaten and the unwanted presents stuffed away in a drawer never to be seen again, it’s time to reflect on Irish rugby’s historic year.
After a promising 2015 World Cup ended in disappointment, coach Joe Schmidt had a lot of work to do in 2016 to rebuild and toughen up this Irish team.
So what were his objectives likely to have been? And how did he fare against them?
Objective 1: Complete the transition
With the retirement of Brian O’Driscoll quickly followed by Paul O’Connell’s injury-enforced exit from international rugby, the first objective was to build a new spine of on-pitch leaders. It is easy to forget that just 12 months ago we were debating who Ireland’s next captain should be.
How long ago that now seems. Rory Best has stepped in to the biggest ever shoes in Irish rugby and simply carried on where they left off, leading by example in those moments and minutes when matches are won and lost. And he has been amply supported by an array of new lieutenants in the likes of McGrath, Stander, Murray and Henshaw.
Objective 2: Build strength in depth
Schmidt deserves credit for bringing the likes of Furlong, Dillane and Van der Flier through at the right time, and the forwards now look well stocked in every department. But he has been very reluctant to experiment in the backs, seemingly placing massive importance on the defensive roles of Trimble on the wing and Payne at centre.
Ringrose was finally pitched in the deep end this November with two of his first three caps coming against New Zealand and Australia. He rose to the occasion wonderfully but he should have been brought through at an earlier stage. And the back three has a decidedly vintage feel to it. That would be fine if they were brilliant players, but Earls, Kearney and Trimble are not names to strike fear into the hearts of defenders. Ireland have players in contention for Lions places from prop to centre – and that’s where it ends. The back three is weak and few new caps have been given out to young contenders. The likes of Stockdale and Adeolokun must now be brought through as a matter of urgency.
Objective 3: Develop killer instinct
Ireland used to give the best in the world a good run for their money, but they always knew their place and would cough up a cheap penalty, sloppy pass or missed tackle in the last quarter that would hand victory to the better team. Not any more. The standout thing about this Irish team is the confidence in the game plan that has come through Schmidt’s rigorous attention to detail. All the players know their roles inside out and so when the pressure comes on, they know exactly what to do, allowing them to calmly close out big games that would previously have slipped through their fingers.
Objective 4: Back up big performances
Again, Ireland teams of old could go to the well and pull out a massive, one-off performance. But to do so required performances so far above average – and of such emotional intensity – that backing it up was always difficult, if not impossible. Ireland’s win over New Zealand was an exceptional performance, true. But most of Ireland’s big wins these days are not emotional epics, but rather the natural result of accurate execution of an effective game plan. Backing that up is a whole lot easier.
Victory on South African soil was followed by two closely-fought contests, where in previous years we would have seen a whipping at least once. Mind you, South Africa are not what they once were, and in hindsight Schmidt will regret not adding a first Southern Hemisphere series victory to the list of achievements this year, after the Boks were beaten by England, Wales and Italy this November.
This objective won’t be completed until Ireland win back-to-back matches against southern hemisphere opposition, but on no occasion was the team overwhelmed this year, and that in itself is an achievement.
Objective 5: Develop a running game
Ireland have come in for much criticism for scoring so few tries in the Six Nations in recent years, but we started to see promising signs this November of a running game to supplement the kick-chase-maul tactics that won two championships. Work has begun, but there is a long way to go: considering the possession, territory and penalty statistics, Ireland should have run in several more tries this autumn.
You can’t run before you can walk, though, and with the foundations of high energy, low error rugby now in place, this should be a real area of growth between now and 2019. Garry Ringrose’s creativity will undoubtedly help in this regard, as would freshening up the back three, as discussed.
Overall rating: 8/10
This might seem harsh for a season that saw a successful transition away from the golden generation of Irish rugby, followed by the first victory over New Zealand and the first trio of wins over New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. However it’s exactly this kind of unsentimental approach that Schmidt’s success has been built on, and you can bet that the man himself will have been even harder on himself and the team.
With the coach in two minds this summer whether to stay in Ireland or return to New Zealand, the fate of Irish rugby was in the balance. That he chose to stay was an enormous relief for all Irish rugby fans. A first world cup semi final is the official objective of his extended tenure, but in the back of his mind you can guarantee that he is aiming higher.
Ireland have beaten the All Blacks, South Africa and Australia in one year. If they can continue on this upward curve – scoring a few more tries along the way – there is no reason they can’t aim to finally put together the three big performances needed to reach a World Cup final. But that means there is even more work to be done between now and 2019.
I’ll bet he can’t wait to get started.