‘Realist’ Joe Schmidt remains Ireland’s trump card ahead of Boks clash

HEYNEKE MEYER IS no mug, but Joe Schmidt will back himself to have out-thought his South African counterpart ahead of tomorrow’s highly-anticipated November Test in Dublin.

Such is the Ireland head coach’s hard-earned reputation that even a decision as seemingly left-field as starting Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne together in midfield has to be accepted concurrently as one of wisdom.

The Kiwi tactician, more often that not, knows best.

South Africa are six-point favourites amongst the bookies in the build-up, they’re ranked second in the world, and have recently beaten number one side New Zealand. Ireland are down a raft of proven international players, have concerns over the fitness of their tighthead prop and start with an unfamiliar centre pairing.

It seems stacked against the home team entirely, but under Schmidt there is never anything less than a positive mindset – one based on the knowledge that the prep work has been done expertly.

“Optimism doesn’t feature too much for me, realism does,” said Schmidt after naming his match-day squad yesterday.

“That enthusiasm is contagious and I think that everyone is excited about the opportunity coming up at 5.30pm on Saturday. You want to play the best and you want to measure yourself against the best.

“We want that measurement to be as positive as possible and that’s why we’ve worked as hard as possible over the last number of weeks. I think optimist, pessimist – realist is what’s right in front of us. All we can try to control is our best preparation and see what happens on Saturday.”

Much of the discussion yesterday at Carton House was centred on Ireland’s new centre duo. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

That Ireland’s assembly process in the last fortnight has been world-class is in little doubt. Schmidt is the most relentless of taskmasters when it comes to training ground detail and execution.

It doesn’t matter if it’s 94-cap Paul O’Connell or uncapped Darragh Leader – every single player, coach and backroom staff member must contribute as knowledgeably and intensely as the next.

“People need to know their detail, that’s the massive thing for Joe,” said hooker Sean Cronin at Carton House yesterday, and we can rest assured that the Leinster man has studied video footage of both Ireland and South Africa’s line-outs, scrums and mauls in great depth.

Schmidt, like any other top-level coach, is also highly demanding of his players when it comes to the breakdown and ruck. Whatever about game plans, this is the real basis of the sport, the source of all good for his teams.

While everything centred around winning the breakdown and ruck, Ireland’s victorious Six Nations campaign earlier this year was notable for the manner in which other elements of the game plan were tailored to the opposition so ideally.

Wales were flummoxed by Ireland’s intelligent kicking, Italy couldn’t handle the Irish offloading game, while France were beaten in part by one of Schmidt’s superbly tailored ‘power plays’ [Andrew Trimble’s try].

Schmidt and his analysis team of Mervyn Murphy and Vinny Hammond will have pored over countless hours of footage of this Springboks team and identified any chinks in their defence.

There is likely to be an ample dose of kicking from Ireland’s halfbacks tomorrow. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Picking out weaknesses in the second best team in the world of rugby is no easy task. One potentially looks at their habit of being slow to fold in defence after kick chase, as well as their sometimes poor resourcing of rucks in wide channels, but there is comfort in knowing that Schmidt will have highlighted the minor details.

Rob Kearney has given a clear indication that Ireland will look to the skies with their kicking game against the Springboks, maintaining what was a pillar of their game last season.

Time and again, Schmidt asked Andrew Trimble and the Kearney brothers to chase kicks from Conor Murray and Sexton, demanding that his back three get in the air to spoil and regain possession.

This weekend, the slight susceptibility of Willie le Roux and Cornal Hendricks under the high ball will be greatly tested. Bryan Habana is solid in that area on South Africa’s left wing, but the other members of the Boks’ back three can expect a barrage.

As for what Meyer’s men do when they have possession of the ball, there has been much discussion of their broadened attacking dimensions. Those are certainly a reality, but it’s worth stressing again that collision, driving maul and kicking foundations will remain for the Boks.

“[Handré] Pollard put the ball in behind New Zealand really intelligently in the Test in Wellington earlier in the Rugby Championship, as did le Roux. They’ve got some very good kicking options as well as those running options.”

So plenty of kicking at the Aviva tomorrow evening? Schmidt will have little concern if the fixture is not the most aesthetically pleasing. In compensation, there is something eminently watchable about about the heavy contact and breakdown battle likely to be played out in between the flashes of attacking quality from both teams.

Schmidt needs his forward pack to cope in the set-pieces at the Aviva. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

We can be sure that Schmidt has men like Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin and Simon Zebo psychologically prepared. These players may not have been seen as first-choice before the heavy spate of injuries, but the Ireland coach will point to the impacts of Trimble and Chris Henry last season from similar positions.

Beyond those auditioning to become long-term first-choice elements, Schmidt can call upon world-class players like Sexton, Murray, O’Connell, Jamie Heaslip, Kearney and Tommy Bowe to implement his game plan effectively.

The Springboks are justifiably favourites for this game, and an Ireland win would be a major achievement, but this remains a strong XV – even without the repeatedly flagged absentees.

There has been a slight lack of optimism around this game from home quarters this week. Realistically speaking, however, Schmidt’s coaching acumen gives Ireland a well-prepared, intelligent chance of upsetting the odds.

Cronin eager for ‘massive opportunity’ as key ball-carrier against the Boks‘They’re big lads’ – Kearney excited to play off Henshaw and Payne pairing