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Jonathan Bradley: Criticism is expected, but Joe Schmidt will be stung by fact it's coming from former star pupils

Pointing fingers: Joe Schmidt’s style has been in firing line
Pointing fingers: Joe Schmidt’s style has been in firing line
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

I wouldn't say I was the best manager in the business, but I was in the top one.

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Even after Saturday's second World Cup quarter-final thumping, if Joe Schmidt was a more bombastic sort he could have channelled his inner Brian Clough when asked to assess his Irish legacy, his past record in this job not enough to allow this serious blot upon the copybook to alter his standing as Ireland's greatest national coach.

Such proclamations were never likely for, even while there were a number of bones to pick with his ultimate farewell from the arrival area of Dublin airport on Monday night, self-praise has never been Schmidt's style. He's been able to leave that to others.

Such as the time Isa Nacewa referred to him as 'Mr Rugby', the former Leinster captain having worked with Schmidt in Auckland and recommended him for the coaching gig at the RDS. The pair enjoyed plenty of good times together, winning multiple trophies. It was a relationship where coach had been good for player and vice versa.

As Schmidt's own version of an Irish goodbye continues, not even Nacewa had a comforting word though.

"I definitely think it did," he said on Will Greenwood's Sky Sports podcast when asked if Ireland's style, a strength in 2018, had become a problem by the time the World Cup rolled around.

"In the 2017-18 season, once Leinster started playing an attacking brand of rugby and the majority of the Ireland squad was Leinster-based, they let a little bit of that Leinster flair infiltrate the Ireland camp.

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"Joe started to go away from his tried and trusted drills and introduced a bit of what we call unstructured play, that came into Ireland camp in training and in the Six Nations and they were throwing offloads, there was continuity to their play.

"That got them all the way to the top of the world and an unbeaten year with all the trophies.

"Post that, I hear they actually went away from that and started to take it back out and went back to the conservative approach, and that's just shone through the whole World Cup and 2019.

"He went back to the tried and trusted of what worked for the last six years and I just don't think they were expressive enough.

"They didn't have the right ball players and the likes to play that flowing rugby that Johnny (Sexton) likes to play, likes to drive. They lost key players in certain positions and they just never got their flow on."

Brian O'Driscoll, another who enjoyed such success under Schmidt, hit upon a similar point himself, whether through coincidence or having his ear to a similar patch of ground.

"I wonder with Stuart Lancaster coming in (to Leinster) and his focus being very different to Joe's, did that upset the apple cart a little bit?" O'Driscoll said on Newstalk's Off The Ball.

"Because he was very much about unstructured play rather than Joe's focus around set-piece.

"Did that cast a few doubts into players' minds of what way they needed to train and what they needed to focus on? I wonder did that dynamic change things a little bit.

"You can't stop a coach's personal beliefs on how the game should be played. When you hear the Leinster players talk under Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster, everything is about unstructured chaos.

"The launch plays are used to get into that unstructured play, and that's the vast majority of the game, whereas Joe has been very much a set-piece-orientated guy.

"Nearly 50% of Ireland's scores originate from the line-outs, whereas conversely you look at the All Blacks and they score almost 40% of their tries from turnover ball.

"Teams were able to identify that was our main source of success."

Variations on a similar theme and, true or not, their past allegiances will naturally lead to speculation they're still in contact with those in Leinster camp.

Nobody at this level can ever be considered beyond reproach, and a failure to meet expectations on this grand a scale requires forensic examination if Ireland aren't to spend the next 32 years talking of a quarter-final glass ceiling.

Lashing out at media critiquing poor performances in a strictly rugby sense, especially from a group who have had such praise heaped upon them in the recent past, can seem thin-skinned, but Schmidt will no doubt have been stung by what has come from those once in his inner sanctum.

Ex-players in the media won't last long skirting around calling out those they've worked with, but the former schoolteacher is taking flak from some of his best past pupils.

For a man who wielded such power in Irish Rugby as to be compared to Caesar, he surely could be forgiven for thinking, "Et tu, Isa?"

Belfast Telegraph


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