I can’t imagine the pressure sitting on Joe Schmidt’s shoulders this week. Four years of preparation, squad building and system management boils down to 43 days of rugby and seven games if he’s lucky. Who’d be a coach?
Schmidt’s legacy as the greatest Irish rugby coach in living memory is all but assured, but adding a semi final appearance, or even a World Cup win, would be the cap on what has been an extraordinary body of work since he arrived in Ireland nine years ago.
Two Heineken Cups, a Challenge Cup, a PRO12, two Six Nations titles, a Grand Slam, a win away in South Africa for the first time, a series win in Australia and two wins over the All Blacks.
Under Schmidt, Leinster became the biggest club in European rugby and Ireland went from perennial dark horses to the #1 team in the world in the world rankings for the first time and go into this World Cup as one of the favourites.
In 2015, Ireland were fancied in some quarters, but, in truth, we were an incomplete outfit that would have had to beat the All Blacks for the first time in 110 years in the final, had we managed to beat Argentina and then Australia.
We fell at the first hurdle to Argentina and while there were mitigating factors. Sexton, O’Mahony, O’Connell, O’Brien and Payne all out prior to kick off and Tommy Bowe gone after 12 minutes.
The loss was what it was. Ireland didn’t have the depth to compete at the highest level and it was exposed for all to see.
In the aftermath of 2015, Schmidt knew that he’d have to rebuild certain areas of his squad due to injury and aging out.
Tighthead, midfield, second row and backrow chief among them, but replacing like for like wouldn’t be acceptable.
We had to have depth and in the interim Schmidt has not only managed the positional changes required, but he’s also created the depth that was so badly needed. Sure, some of those changes were obvious in advance of 2015.
Furlong was long identified as a top tier prospect and Stander’s eligibility provided an obvious addition to the backrow, but Schmidt has also had to deal with some unexpected depth chart losses, Heaslip and Payne to retirement, Jackson to infamy, Madigan and Zebo to France.
To give you the scale of the job done in the last four years, of the 33 players Ireland ended up using in RWC 2015, only 11 have managed to stay in the squad four years later.
Best, Cronin, Furlong, Healy, Henderson, Ruddock, O’Mahony, Murray, Sexton, Henshaw, Earls and Kearney.
All of that rebuilding, all of those developed depth options, all of that work comes down to 43 days and seven games. It all kicks off this Sunday.
Schmidt won’t be complaining about this do or die context. He knows the gig at this stage. Win and you’re a legend. Lose and you’re a bum who couldn’t get it done on the big stage, just like 2015.
That’s the reality of perception in the modern game. There’s no room to manoeuvre. It’s either glory or bust.
I don’t buy the narrative that getting beyond the quarter final stage would be seen as a success for this Irish side. Why would it? Just because past Irish sides have never managed it doesn’t mean that this side should be judged on those standards.
Do the seven men still in the squad who played in 2011 have a monkey on their back? Does Rory Best still carry the weight of 2007? I don’t think so.
This is a new Irish squad with new aims. Why would we be happy with a top four place when we’re #1 in the world going into the tournament?
For me, the only thing that will constitute a success in this World Cup is getting to the final and winning it.
We’re beyond the stage of being happy to be here and living in the backhanded compliment status of “being able to beat anyone on our day”.
This Irish squad doesn’t need a good day to succeed in Japan. We just need to play to our potential because if we do that, I truly believe that we’ll be coming home with the Webb Ellis trophy and glory that we never thought was possible.
Forty three days. Seven games. Here we go.