■ Schmidt to confirm future by the end of this month
Coach says Murray unlikely to be pitched in against All Blacks but player’s sharpness has given ‘food for thought’
In contrast to previously renewing contracts as head coach with Ireland, Joe Schmidt has set a deadline for the end of this month before deciding whether to continue in the job or move on after next year’s World Cup in Japan.
Recalling some prevarication previously, that in itself could be interpreted as another sign that he is of a mind to move on after completing two World Cup cycles, possibly to return home to New Zealand after almost a dozen years coaching in France and Ireland.
Then again there’s always the danger of reading too much between the lines with Schmidt, for as well as being a handy coach he knows how to play the straightest of straight bats. But it’s clear he’s close to having his mind made up this time. “Yes, by the end of November I will [make a decision]. I think it’s one of those things where you’ve just got to sit down and make a decision. You can’t let it linger for two reasons really.”
“One, if I’m staying I want the clarity going forward, and if I’m not staying I want the clarity for the IRFU because I think half the job is what gets done under your watch, the other half of the job is how you leave it so that somebody else can pick it up. And so I want nice clarity either way.”
Although this November window is played out to that backdrop or sub-plot, the man at the centre of it has no problems placing it to one side.
“Yea, I do find it easy,” he said after his arrival in the US on Thursday evening local time to link up with the travelling squad having stayed back to work in Carton House with the experienced core who will form the backbone of the side to face Argentina and New Zealand over the next two Saturdays.
“I am really good at compartmentalising, and I got home for a night last night [Wednesday] so it was great to catch up with the family and try to block out a few things, and when they headed off to bed I got a little bit done, and I got a few things done on the plane.
“When these weeks come up they’re so precious. You only get 12 or 13 of them in the year. They’re so precious that you just maximise whatever you can put into them.”
Whereas that is easy, he said, less easy was his struggle with decisions to leave players out of squads, something he “wouldn’t miss” doing. He then added intriguingly: “But I’ve spoken to Kellie, even the kids, talking to Tim last night, just trying to make a decision that is the right one for all of us really.”
Again at the risk of reading too much between the lines, having shared more of the coaching responsibilities this week, this seemed possibly like another hint that he may be moving on.
The aspect of the job he clearly relishes the most is being on the training ground with the players. That hasn’t changed. “Yea, look I cannot say that I’ve ever enjoyed working more with a group and whether that’s the young guys that are here or whether it’s the guys that we just finished with in Carton House.”
“There is a contagious enthusiasm in the group. There is a willingness to really stretch themselves so that they try to perform as best as they can, and there’s a cohesion there because they do take real pride in who they represent, and I think they do a good job of it.”
“There would be very few times, even times when we have been beaten by good teams, that I would struggle to say, ‘well, we didn’t turn up’. I love the way that they turn up.”
Undoubtedly another tempting reason to stay put in a country, system and job that just seems tailor-made for him is the crop of talent coming through. Rory Best recently expressed his confidence in the next generation maintaining Irish successes, and Schmidt concurs. Amongst this group of player could be many of today’s side in Soldier Field.
“I certainly think you are going to see a lot of these guys play a lot of games for Ireland. I’d like to think we have worked pretty hard to get the right personnel, and while Jack [McGrath] is the only starter on Saturday who is around the 50-cap mark, there are guys who have ‘big caps’,” said Schmidt.
“What I am saying is that caps aren’t all the same. Guys like Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose, finishing off those Six Nations, those are big caps. Those are big experiences they can bring to the fore.
“Two years ago Joey Carbery had his 21st birthday in a Chicago restaurant here, and he managed the last 20 minutes of a monumental day for us, a day that we still look back on fondly and I am sure he does,” added the coach in reference to Carbery’s strikingly composed debut when helping to steer Ireland over the winning line against the All Blacks on his debut.
“Sometimes there is a nice sense of him coming back to where it all started and hopefully taking another step. So while he would not have so many big caps starting, he has had some big opportunities,” he added of Carbery’s 12th cap and fourth start against Australia in Melbourne.
All told, after Jack McGrath (50 caps) the next most experienced player in the starting team is Rhys Ruddock on 19 caps, with Ringrose the squad’s most capped back on 14.
“I know it is a little bit of an amalgam,” admitted Schmidt. “But I hope it is an amalgam that works for us. I don’t know about 10 years but certainly in the five-year cycle we might see an immediate one year and the four years that follow a lot of those guys will play a lot of games.”
In reeling off the impending list of threats posed by Argentina next week, Schmidt self-deprecatingly admitted this showed how much video analysis they had done on Los Pumas in the last few days.
‘‘ If I’m staying I want the clarity going forward and if I’m not staying I want the clarity for the IRFU because I think half the job is what gets done under your watch, the other half of the job is how you leave it
The dozen who stayed in camp were supplement by Conor Murray, who hasn’t played since the third Test in Sydney in June due to a neck problem. He is still unlikely to be pitched back into action after almost five months out against Argentina or the All Blacks, but his wellbeing has given Schmidt food for thought.
“Well, based on his training in the last few days he’s super, super sharp,” said Schmidt, almost in awe as much as surprise. “He did the bit of contact that we did, and certainly his pass and his running – we didn’t do anything really for him to do a lot of kicking – he was sharp.”
“We’re going to probably err on the side of being conservative with Conor, just because we want to make sure that he is fully comfortable before he returns to the pitch – whether it be for us or whether it be for Munster.”
Repeating that they were liable to be cautious with the All Blacks also in mind, Schmidt said: “I just think at this stage he would be a very outside chance of being involved. That would be a tough ask. He hasn’t played since the third Test in Australia and then you’ve got to play the All Blacks.”
Noting the presence of Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara, he added: “To be honest, he would have to be really flying in that New Zealand week to be involved.”
But then the Irish coach conceded: “It definitely gave me food for thought, the last few days, working with him and seeing how sharp he was.”
Joe Schmidt puts Ireland players through their paces in a pre-match drill during the summer tour of Australia .