ALL of a sudden the aura around Joe Schmidt is beginning to fade.
No longer talked about as a rugby Messiah, two defeats and a draw from his last three games have removed the halo that hovered over his head. Perhaps he is mortal after all, even if he did win four trophies in three years with Leinster followed by back-to-back Six Nations championships with Ireland.
And so, after being the recipient of lavish praise for the bulk of his time in Ireland — save for the opening weeks of his Leinster tenure when he lost two of his first three games — Schmidt is all of a sudden having to face the kind of criticism every coach gets at some stage of their career.
“Last Saturday, we didn’t deliver the level of accuracy and execution that has become the hallmark of teams coached by Joe Schmidt,” wrote Eddie O’Sullivan in his Times column.
Alan Quinlan agreed. The former Irish international used his Irish Independent column to call for a change in both personnel and tactics. “There was no spark in our attack,” he wrote. “Simon Zebo, Keith Earls and (the uncapped) Stuart McCloskey can provide it. They should be picked to start against England.”
Had Earls and Zebo been fit, they may well have started last Saturday. Instead they joined a lengthy injury list that has got considerably worse ever since the pool game against France in the World Cup when Peter O’Mahony, Paul O’Connell and Johnny Sexton got hurt.
Since then, Tommy Bowe, Iain Henderson, Mike Ross, Cian Healy, Luke Fitzgerald, Earls and Zebo have joined the absentee list and when Sexton and Dave Kearney were cynically clocked during Saturday’s bruising encounter, the team that ended the game was almost unrecognisable from the preferred starting XV Schmidt had in his head at the start of the season.
Then his ideal pack would have comprised Healy, Best, Ross, O’Connell, Henderson, O’Brien, O’Mahony and Heaslip but by the 72nd minute of Saturday’s game, only Heaslip, of those eight players, was fit and energetic enough to be on the pitch.
And the casualty list didn’t end there: with Earls, Zebo, Dave Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald and Tommy Bowe all injured, Schmidt was forced to finish the game with Fergus McFadden, his sixth choice, on the wing. While Craig Gilroy, who electrified Ravenhill last Friday against Glasgow, should have been there, the overall point can’t be lost. The coach has been cursed by injuries and also, clearly, by some awful officialdom.
You’ll do well to find more than a couple of people who didn’t consider Yoann Maestri’s high challenge on Sexton in the second-half of Saturday’s game a yellow card offence, or Guilhem Guirado’s thump on Dave Kearney worthy of a straight red. Unfortunately, from an Irish perspective, the two men who mattered most — George Ayoub, the TMO, and Jaco Peyper, the referee — believed those incidents merited nothing more than a penalty.
And so it remained 15 against 15 at a time when, under different officials, it could quite easily have been 15 against 14 or even 13. Would Ireland have held out in those circumstances? You’d have thought so.
Instead, they lost a six-point lead just six days after losing a 13-point one. A year ago, they were perfecting the art of seeing out games. Then again, a year ago they had O’Connell starting and Henderson finishing their games. And they also had Ross at tighthead with Marty Moore, a brute of a man (and another injury victim), there to offer respite at the scrum. Subsequently that area was a source of strength — not weakness — for Ireland.
The good news is that Ross and Healy are back fit again, that Sexton, Zebo and Earls should also be available again when Ireland next play. And the bad news? That next game is against England at Twickenham.
“That game was always going to be the fulcrum of Ireland’s Six Nations campaign,” O’Sullivan said.
“And a loss to England would be the low point in Schmidt’s tenure and questions would come into play about the direction of the team under his stewardship with the disappointing exit from the Rugby World Cup becoming part of the narrative should the Six Nations end in a slump.”
And from this distance it is hard to see anything other than a defeat happening, not because Ireland have become a bad team or Schmidt a bad coach. However, they do look tired — not just physically but also tactically. A kicking game that worked so effectively for so long has now been exposed for its limitations. A Plan B is needed otherwise Schmidt and his buddies will be down and out in Paris and London.