Joe Schmidt's new role gives Ireland perfect opportunity to back up all the talk
"We won’t miss a beat."
Brad Mooar was definitely trying to convey a sense of calmness and business as usual, but the All Blacks are down three coaches and two players on the week of their Test opener against Ireland. Incoming selector Joe Schmidt has been drafted in to help.
Schmidt was not due to get more hands-on with the All Blacks until the Ireland Test Series. Sure, his insight would have been sought and Ian Foster would have sounded him out on certain Irish players, but Schmidt and the NZRU were keen not to step on too many toes.
Back in 2019 when it was announced Schmidt would be returning home to New Zealand, after six years in charge of Ireland, he stated he was to 'finishing coaching' after that year's World Cup. Some folks are holding Schmidt to that statement, three years on, but he never definitively declared he was finished with coaching for good. Even if he did, the man is entitled to change his mind.
Schmidt lives and breathes the game. He is back in New Zealand now, closer to his wider family and old friends and as 'support coach' already kicking Auckland Blues into Super Rugby shape.
The plan was to leave off the senior appointment with the All Blacks, as one of Foster's selectors and key advisors, but Covid has a way of rapidly changing plans. He will oversee a lot of New Zealand's training sessions and preparations, this week, along with Brad Mooar and Greg Feek. You can be sure Foster, Scott McLeod and John Plumtree will be teeing up lots of Zoom chats, too.
The presence of Joe Schmidt with the All Blacks may have some of the more cautious Irish rugby supporters nervous, but it only provides an ideal opportunity to back up all their talk, over the past nine months.
Steady progress and loosened reins
As two of the most senior figures in the current Ireland squad, both Peter O'Mahony and captain Johnny Sexton have talked, on more than one occasion, about how open and relaxed life is under Andy Farrell.
Joe Schmidt was obsessive in his detail and preparation and while it drove Ireland to great deeds, the last year of his time in charge - with 2019 World Cup pressure building - was perhaps the least enjoyable of his six there.
Farrell sought to loosen the reins when he took over from Schmidt, and the consensus view from players I have spoken with is that life in camp is much more mellow. That does not mean the drive to win has dissipated but a sense of dread over making errors or voicing opinions has lifted somewhat.
That is all well and good, but Farrell was getting little credit for easing off the throttle with his players when Ireland got jollied around by England and France in 2020. After falling short in the 2021 Six Nations, Sexton said:
"We're just below that [top table] at the moment but I'm confident in this team and coaching staff that we can go to that level."
Ireland ended that 2021 Six Nations with three wins on the bounce, had a winning summer against USA and Japan, won three more [including a third ever Test win over New Zealand] in November and entered the 2022 tournament with high hopes. An away loss to France ended their Grand Slam ambitions but they rebounded well to push Les Bleus all the way before they lifted their first Six Nations trophy in over a decade.
Ireland at least got a Triple Crown for their efforts - something tangible to show for the guts of three years changing how things are done under Andy Farrell. After they beat Scotland to wrap up that Triple Crown, Sexton was taking aim at the doubters.
'We know how fickle sport is' - Johnny Sexton
"We’ve started talking about it already," Johnny Sexton proclaimed, "that this is the journey, which is a different approach to previous management that I’ve worked under which I think is the right way to do it. We’re confident in the journey we’re on."
"It's a very tight bunch," he added. "We have come from some low times. It’s only a few years ago we were being written off.
"The coach was being written off, the captain was being written off, and the team was being written off. It’s pretty fickle, sport, isn’t it? So we will keep our feet grounded because we know how fickle it is."
As Johnny Sexton should know, by now, you take your victories and score your points when you can.
Later that day, France would see off England to win the Six Nations, leaving Ireland in second spot again. They may feel they are going places, but most of us know this New Zealand tour and next year's World Cup will be what this iteration of Ireland will be judged on.
With a hugely talented New Zealand not as daunting as they once were, Covid disrupting their First Test preparation and the Irish players better rested after missing out on the United Rugby Championship Grand Final, it is a golden opportunity to strike a big blow against the All Blacks.
Ireland have already gained the respect of New Zealand. Three wins in their last five Test meetings will do that.
Now is the time to make some more history by beating the All Blacks, Joe Schmidt included, on their doorstep.