Six Nations: Joe Schmidt's plan is starting to pay off for Ireland

Six Nations: Joe Schmidt's plan is starting to pay off for Ireland

REMEMBER this time two years ago? Defeat at Twickenham meant Ireland had reached a four-game winless run and there were fewer and fewer mentions of the four trophies Joe Schmidt had won in three years with Leinster or those back-to-back Six Nations championships with Ireland in 2014 and 2015.

And so instead of being the recipient of lavish praise, Schmidt was discovering something new in his life, namely the kind of criticism every coach has to face at some stage of their career, but none of them like. This was March 2016.

The World Cup had ended in disaster and the Six Nations had started in similarly chaotic fashion, with defeats in Paris and London following a draw with Wales. Eddie O’Sullivan bemoaned a lack of accuracy in his side while Alan Quinlan used his Irish Independent column to call for a change in both personnel and tactics.

But amid it all, Schmidt stayed calm. The man has the air of a headmaster about him but the nerve of a Las Vegas high-roller, a necessary characteristic to possess given the trade he is in, one where your reputation and job is dependent on the quality of your judgment.

So this time two years ago, as Schmidt surveyed an injury list that started with Peter O'Mahony’s name, and then when through the alphabet from Bowe to Zebo, with Iain Henderson, Mike Ross, Cian Healy, Luke Fitzgerald, Sean O’Brien, Dave Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald and Tommy Bowe all added to it, he refused to panic.

“We’ve shed about 300 caps from the World Cup,” he said at the time. “Replacing Paul O'Connell is a challenge, dealing with injuries is a challenge.

"But whether you are on a rugby pitch or a commercial enterprise, if you’ve got people who’ve been in a situation before who have the experience, who have made good or bad decisions and have learned from them, I think you’re in a stronger position going forward.

"My job now is to make sure that if we ever get the kind of circumstances we encountered in the lead-up to the World Cup quarter-final (which they lost heavily to Argentina after an injury crisis) that we can cope. You need a plan in place.”

In the bad old days of Irish rugby, the only plan anyone came up with was the kind Baldrick would concoct. Times have changed, though, and as Schmidt talked about trying new ideas and players, people were prepared to give him time.

And from the distance of two years, it’s clear he has used it wisely. Post Argentina and the 2015 World Cup defeat, there have been 13 championship matches, as well as a first-ever victory over New Zealand on Chicago soil.

And the casualties have kept on coming. Of the team who started that quarter-final in Cardiff, only six featured against Wales last Saturday. Similarly, there are just six survivors from the side who defeated the All Blacks at Soldier Field 16 months ago.

Post 2015, O’Connell, Ross, Luke Fitzgerald, Eoin Reddan and Jamie Heaslip have all retired; Tommy Bowe has signalled his intention to follow suit at the end of this season; Jordi Murphy has overcome knee reconstruction, Ian Madigan, Simon Zebo and Donncha Ryan have voluntarily removed themselves from the provincial payroll, and therefore from selection, while Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw and Chris Farrell are all ruled out for the remainder of the season.

And the bad luck doesn’t stop there. In his four years in charge, Schmidt has overseen 28 games at either World Cup or Six Nations level, with 46 different players capped along the way.

For one reason or another - whether it has come down to age, injury, a court case, or a decision to play abroad, 22 of those men have been removed from his selection list.

And they aren’t just any old names either. Between them, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Heaslip and O’Connell won 418 caps. All four retired on Schmidt’s watch.

Worse again, some of their replacements have also been wiped out, Payne to persistent headaches, Henshaw to a shoulder injury, while injuries have denied Schmidt use of Sean O’Brien and Garry Ringrose in this campaign thus far, as well, at various stages, of Tadhg Furlong's, Iain Henderson's, James Ryan's and Josh van der Flier's, services.

And that is before we mention support-cast members such as Rhys Ruddock and Farrell.

Amid it all, though, Schmidt has continued to experiment and the team has kept on winning. A record equalling ten victories on the spin has been achieved while he has been forced to chop and change his side. Since succeeding Declan Kidney in 2013, Schmidt has tried 10 different midfield partnerships in Six Nations or World Cup matches, six of those pairings being put together since the World Cup.

This campaign alone, he’s gone through three different combinations in his front row, three different partnerships in the second row, two variations in the back row, and a switch from his favoured Henshaw-Payne centre combo to an Aki-Henshaw reunion and then an Aki-Farrell makeshift arrangement.

That too has to be broken up now, with Aki-Ringrose set to become the 11th different centre pairing he has tried in a competitive arena since he became head coach.

It isn't the only area of change. Thus far, since the World Cup, 13 different players have been given championship starts and out of those newbies, Furlong and CJ Stander have become British & Irish Lions, Jacob Stockdale has turned into a try-scoring sensation, and there is no limit to Andrew Porter and James Ryan's potential.

In many respects, the 52-year-old is a lucky man. The controversial, and unlikable residency rule, has supplemented his squad with quality operators - Stander, Payne and Aki - and that particular talent pool has a long way to go before it runs dry, too.

And then there's the underage conveyor belt, where Ryan, Porter, Ringrose, van der Flier, Stockdale and Dan Leavy have stepped from. A decade ago, Ireland produced players at a rate of one-per-season. Now it seems as if it is one-a-month.

The upshot is the likely acquisition of a third championship in five years, and also, looking down the track, a squad that will be able to compete in Japan in next year's World Cup. Until now, Ireland have only ever brought a decent team to world rugby's biggest show. Next year - save for half-back - they'll have depth everywhere.