FROM LAWRENCE DALLAGLIO to Warren Gatland to Shane Horgan, everyone seems to be predicting Ireland will win their second successive Six Nations championship and the basis for their logic, unlike previous eras when pundits would have pointed to Brian O’Driscoll or Ronan O’Gara, is Joe Schmidt.
This favourites tag is especially interesting because in international sport consensus usually takes a long time to build, but it has only been 23 months since Ireland lost to Italy and finished joint bottom of the Six Nations table. Plus, last year’s championship was exceptional but it still involved a loss to England and a wafer thin win over France.
Add this to the fact that historically Ireland don’t play well two seasons in a row. Indeed, they haven’t won back to back championships since 1982-1983.
In fact, Ireland don’t have the fastest backs or the biggest forwards or the deepest squad, they’ve lost their greatest ever player, their star player is recovering from a long layoff with concussion, and yet everyone is betting on green.
This confidence is partially down to Schmidt’s success with Leinster and Clermont, but also has a lot to do with the methodology he’s used along the way. The thoroughness, the obsession and the high standards are of as much comfort to Ireland fans as the wins.
Teams go on good runs in the Premier League, for example, and at Christmas everyone is wondering will they make the top four, then they collapse because they were just in a confidence bubble. Short term success is great, but as Dallaglio explained in The Sunday Times last weekend, it’s what Brian O’Driscoll has been telling him about Schmidt that makes the former England captain believe Ireland will top the table again.
Is Joe Schmidt the rugby equivalent of Bill Belichick. Source: Matt Slocum/AP/Press Association Images
The Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll may be literally the only person in the world, of those who know the basic rules of American Football, who would have chosen not to hand the ball to the almost unstoppable Marshawn Lynch one yard from the endzone during Sunday’s Super Bowl. In fact, most people can’t even come up with a single logical reason why he may have told his quarterback to pass into a crowded area rather than opt for a low risk running move.
In his interview after the game Carroll said the defensive match-ups selected by Belichick for that crucial play meant a running move wasn’t a good option for Seattle. In other words, even when he held all the aces, he was still concerned about what his opposition coach Bill Belichick might come up with.
Belichick is the most successful and most talked about head coach currently working in the game. Belichick brings mystery, medals, and an aura to every game he’s involved in. Carroll, a man who historically hasn’t been prone to second guessing himself, may just have played the Belichick aura, not the moment.
When facing Ireland, Stuart Lancaster, Warren Gatland, Vern Cotter, Philippe Saint Andre and Jacques Brunel will spend a fair percentage of their week second guessing themselves and will be under pressure to come up with something original, to go out of their comfort zones, and to plan for what Schmidt and Les Kiss have planned.
The problem for those other coaches is in the season and a half Schmidt and Kiss have been in charge they now have the most talented group of players at their disposal (assuming Sean O’Brien, Cian Healy, Keith Earls, Tommy Bowe and Luke Fitzgerald are all available during the Six Nations) and that could mean a new style of play from what we’ve seen before.
The speed at which the sport of rugby union evolves in terms of tactics, technique and athleticism is phenomenal. Since the game went professional no one team or style has managed to stay at the top of European rugby for very long, there is always some video analyst scheming away in the background.
Schmidt will eventually be caught out, will probably even lose one or two games in the tournament, but the best predictor of success is a coach with a proven track record, an obsessive work ethic and a clear methodology, and at the moment Ireland have rugby’s Pep Guardiola in charge.
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Cipriani, Easter back on England’s bench as Lancaster pairs Burrell and Joseph in the centrePhilippe Saint-André has picked an impressive France XV to face Scotland