Joe Schmidt caught the Irish rugby media off guard last week. They assumed, incorrectly, that Ireland’s head coach would rest several of his top players for the upcoming Tour of Australia. Instead, the New Zealander has named a full-strength squad for the three tests against the Wallabies (9th, 16th, 23rd June).
At full-strength, that squad just happens to be the second-best team in the world right now, with only New Zealand ahead of the men from the Emerald Isle in the official rankings. While no ranking system can be without fault, although it is undisputable that New Zealand deserve their position, most experts would agree that Ireland too merit their lofty place in the rankings.
Grand Slam heroics showed Ireland at their best
Freshly-minted 2018 Six Nations Grand Slam winners, while also recording their first-ever victory over New Zealand in 2016, it’s been a good couple of years for Ireland under Schmidt. Indeed, Ireland come to Australia having just lost one tie to the Wallabies over the last seven years. The question for many will be this: is that a sign of Ireland’s rise or Australia’s decline in recent years?
For most pundits, the answer would be the former. Ireland look a team assured of its place at the top of world rugby. Mentality, as great players would testify, is key to bridging the gap between good teams and great ones. Ireland are capable of ‘tuning it on’ when they sense weakness, such as with the 38-3 hammering of South Africa last autumn (not the scalp of old, but still an impressive victory). But they can grind out key results when playing poorly. For example, when Johnny Sexton kicked a 83rd minute drop goal to clinch the Six Nations opener against France.
Schmidt seen as one of Europe’s best coaches
Behind the scenes, there is Schmidt. A technician who analyses the opponent and builds his tactics afresh for each game accordingly. Schmidt’s stock is soaring in the Northern Hemisphere, with many left wondering why his biggest ever job in his home country was as assistant coach to The Blues (2004-2007). A huge gig may await him in his home-coming, but he has unfinished business with Ireland first.
Bookmakers have reacted to Schmidt’s selection, with Ladbrokes going in at 1.91 on both Australia and Ireland to win the series. A draw is available at 26.00. It is, of course, tough to call as the Wallabies have home advantage, so you can check out these free bets if you are unsure about where to put your money. However, the very fact that Ireland have been given parity in the odds on a Tour of Australia shows how far they have come.
And, that’s part of the reason for Schmidt opting to bring his big guns to Australia: he is looking to build momentum for the Rugby World Cup next year. At the moment, Ireland are 5.00 second-favourites behind New Zealand (2.10, Ladbrokes). They are at opposite ends of the draw and could well meet in the 2019 Final. Schmidt will be well aware that, to do that, he will likely have to overcome Australia in the semi finals (if the tournament goes by form and ranking).
The meticulous Schmidt will be plotting his way through all three Tests, but, make no mistake about it, he will also be concocting his plan for Japan 2019. His side may win or lose this battle Down Under, but Schmidt will be busy drawing up plans for the rest of the war. The rugby union world has been put on notice.