Ireland v Scotland: 'Joe Schmidt eyes World Cup send-off to match reign'
|2019 Rugby World Cup Pool A: Ireland v Scotland|
|Venue: International Stadium, Yokohama Date: Sunday, 22 September Kick-off: 08:45 BST|
|Coverage: Full commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Radio Scotland MW and BBC Radio Ulster; plus text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app.|
When Scotland had finally made their way through the rush-hour traffic from a training session at Yokohama in the Kanagawa Prefecture to their hotel in Takanawa in the Shinagawa ward east of the Imperial Palace, probably the last thing they wanted to do was chew the fat with the media.
The time for talking, in fairness, is over. Scotland play Ireland on Sunday. Since the draw was made 28 months ago, this one game has sat on the landscape as big and as imposing as the Great Buddha of Kamakura. It is Gregor Townsend's first World Cup game as Scotland coach and it is Joe Schmidt's last campaign as Ireland coach. One of them is going to be in rugby purgatory come Sunday night in Tokyo.
Ireland's World Cup record is a recurring tale of woe, from the agony of a last-minute quarter-final exit to eventual winners Australia in 1991 to a humiliating loss to the unheralded Argentina in 1999 to another heartache against Australia in 2003 to the mortification of a struggle against Namibia, a near-loss to Georgia and a thumping loss to the Pumas in 2007. This is not a story any of them will want to tell their grandchildren.
In 2011 they had a big chance to make the last four for the first time but lost to Wales. Four years later, and ravaged by injury, they departed in the quarter-final, Argentina doing the damage once more. Eight countries have made a World Cup semi-final including Scotland (once) and Wales and Argentina (twice), but that list does not include Ireland.
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'Brutal control freak who goes far beyond obsession'
After breaking so many records in his time, Schmidt will want to make another piece of history before he goes. From the very first moment he held a team meeting as coach he had his players in the palm of his hand. His reputation as a deep thinker, a tactical genius, an all-seeing man who would rather gouge out his own eyes than settle for second best had gone before him.
His opening address to his players back in 2013 involved producing a hotel key-card holder from his pocket, dropped in the corridor by one of his squad. "Sloppy off the pitch, sloppy on the pitch," he said.
Rory Best, who captains the team against Scotland on Sunday, described the scene as a room full of top-class, hard-bitten international rugby players, suddenly, and nervously, touching their pocket in the hope that they weren't the guilty man for fear of incurring the notorious wrath of the coach.
You'd say that Schmidt had a command of the room in that instant, but in truth he had it long before he ever walked in there. He'd been with Leinster for the previous three years and had won two European Cups, one European Challenge Cup and one Pro12. In the most celebrated period in the history of the game in Ireland, he went on to lead his adopted country to three Six Nations championships and one Grand Slam.
Under Schmidt, Ireland won in South Africa for the first time, beat New Zealand for the first time (and then beat them again) and won a series in Australia for the first time in almost 40 years, when Ollie Campbell was in his pomp. They were, and are now again, ranked world number one.
To the public, Schmidt is charming, insightful and generous, touring the country doing inspirational speeches at schools and clubs for which he will accept not a shilling in payment. To his players, he is a tour-de-force of intensity, a brutal control freak whose attention to detail, and at times his cruelty on the training ground, goes far beyond what you might call obsessional. His camps are not pleasant places to be, but for his troops the endgame has been worth the pain.
'The bullies had been bullied'
It's only this year that Irish rugby folk have started to contemplate the notion that perhaps Schmidt doesn't have the power to walk on water after all. After a 2018 that was without question the greatest single year in the annals of the Irish game, 2019 has been a disappointment.
The great man announced that he was leaving his post after the World Cup and then everything started to unravel. England monstered Ireland on the opening weekend of the Six Nations and then Wales did the same on the last weekend. In between, they were unconvincing in victory against Scotland and Italy.
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The analysis switched from Ireland being potential World Cup winners to Ireland peaking a year too early, not for the first time. Schmidt came under criticism for his hugely attritional style of rugby and the toll it was taking on his players. Ireland had become all about the bludgeon. When they couldn't batter teams with their physicality they didn't have a whole lot left. The bullies had been bullied and confidence levels dropped.
The go-to men were struggling to find their best stuff. Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray and Tadhg Furlong, not only Test Lions in New Zealand in 2017 but arguably the finest players in their individual positions in the planet at one time, were injured or diminished. Coming into the round of World Cup warm-up games Ireland weren't sure where they were at. At Twickenham, in the opening prep game, they lost by a record score. It was mortifying. The Irish line-out was hopeless, the defence was shambolic. Eddie Jones' team put nearly 60 points on them. A concern had officially become a crisis.
Can Schmidt conjure landmark masterpiece?
What Schmidt is attempting to do now is akin to a magician pulling off his greatest trick, the landmark masterpiece before he leaves the stage. Picking Ireland up off the floor to make that yearned-for semi-final, or final, would be the glorious last chapter in Schmidt's legacy. Losing to Scotland is not part of the plan.
His team took steps forward in two warm-up games against Wales in the wake of the Twickenham debacle, so there's hope now if not quite the expectation of before. There will also be a nagging worry about Sunday. The simple fact is that Ireland have beaten Scotland five times out of six on Schmidt's watch, but that's superficial stuff to the Kiwi.
The deep analysis of those games, particularly the last three, is what he's all about. Scotland won in 2017 and had chances to put serious pressure on Ireland in 2018 and 2019 and blew the big moments. Most people will have forgotten the cut and thrust of those Tests, but not Schmidt.
Across the span of his years in the job the average score between these teams has been 29-15 in Ireland's favour. A 14-point margin? In his quest for a send-off that would do justice to his reign, he'd settle for a whole lot less than that. Right now, he'd take a one-point win and move on, to whatever lies ahead of him.