Joe Schmidt has revealed the thinking behind Ireland’s approach to player welfare, and has also given an insight into the give and take that happens between national and provincial coaches over player availability.
With rugby becoming ever more attritional, and issues such as concussion and career-threatening injuries a more common occurrence than before, the need to ensure players are optimally prepared for matches has never been more widely discussed.
Speaking to RTÉ Sport’s Michael Corcoran, Schmidt outlined some of the considerations involved in managing the welfare of Ireland’s elite players.
“To get the best use of those resources [the players] without, I suppose, killing the golden goose, it is about making sure that we look after their management in the best possible way that we can; particularly because they have provincial responsibilities and national responsibilities,” Schmidt said.
“I think one of the reasons Johnny [Sexton] is coming back is so he doesn’t have to play 12 games in 11 weeks"
“And at the same time, we try to individualise it as much as we can. There’s been a real evolution from it being very much a tiered programme, where everyone fell into a particular tier, and that was it, it was very finite, whereas now there’s a lot more flexibility.
“It was an annual programme, now it’s a quarterly programme.
"So, every quarter we have a look, and, you know, someone may have had an injury in the first quarter, and might need to catch up a bit of game time. Other people may have gone and played a little bit more than we would have liked, and we want to make sure that they get a little bit of a rest somewhere.”
Schmidt said the player welfare system operated by the IRFU was an attraction for players to remain here, and cited it as a factor in the return to Leinster of Johnny Sexton.
“I think one of the reasons Johnny is coming back is so he doesn’t have to play 12 games in 11 weeks. Since that period, Johnny hasn’t really had an extended period of continuity in his game time, because he has accumulated a few injuries.
“A number of those niggles, they start when you start repeatedly putting games back to back to back.
“I think it’s something that Tommy [Bowe], spoke about: one of the reasons that he didn’t go to France, and did come back here [from the Ospreys in Wales] is that he knew he’d be looked after and better managed in this country.
“You’ve just got to bite your tongue, and when they come into your environment try to progress them"
“I know it’s been something that’s been spoken about when players are in contract negotiations with the IRFU, that they know that it’s a real positive, that they will be managed here, [and] that they have less control of that should they go to a foreign club.”
Schmidt was keen to downplay any suggestion that he had decision-making powers in provincial selections, and though he admitted he “maybe once or twice since I started this job, might suggest to a coach, ‘Have you thought about playing this guy in this position?’
"And it would never be even a request, it might be a conversation. But it would never be anything like a demand, or a request; it would be a conversation.
“The provincial coach is entitled to do whatever he wants to do. And there have been some players that I’ve been very keen to see in a particular position, and get a continuity of game-time in particular position, that hasn’t happened.
“You’ve just got to bite your tongue, and when they come into your environment try to progress them in that position as best you can.
“I think there’s some really good autonomy for the provincial coaches. And there are some confines as well. I’ve been on both sides of the fence, so I know to try to be a little bit flexible on those confines.
“There were guys, post the Six Nations, who were available to be played, and provincial coaches decided not to play those players, because, again, it would have been an effort for that player rather than an excitement.
“They had a few niggles, they’re fatigued, and [the management team] are going to get more out of them the following week, or the week after that, if they manage them. And I’ve got to say that the provincial coaches are very aware of making sure that they look after the players as well as the national programme, which sets I suppose an external structure to it, but very much inside that there’s great autonomy for the individual provincial coaches.”
Schmidt agreed that communication between the provinces and the national set-up was massively important if Ireland were to continue their recent success.
“Part of my mandate as national coaches is to try to help the provinces be as successful as possible. A big part of that is to try to give them as much autonomy, because they’ve got very good coaching staffs, and they’ve got very structures in them, and they go about their jobs very, very professionally.
“One of the ways that we’ve tried to provide a bit more flexibility is getting players back to them from national camp earlier in the week. Post-training on Tuesday, or post-training on Wednesday, if we have a Sunday game ... [for instance] we had a Sunday game against England: that week, we got as many players back to the provinces as we possibly [could], and Girvan Dempsey has done a fantastic job as Academy manager in Leinster to provide us with enough training opposition.
“So we got half-a-dozen Leinster Under-19 players. Now, that wouldn’t be quite the same level as having the 30 best players in Ireland preparing each other for the battle that ensues the following.
"But we’re trying to get those players back to the provinces so they can remain as competitive as they possible can be, and at the same time, it’s really exciting to see some of the young talent that’s coming through.
“And one of the most important things is: the player management programme can be seen as a restriction, but it can also be seen as an opportunity.
"One of the problems that Leinster had this year is that they’ve truncated the European season"
"Two years ago, you had the likes of Jack McGrath, Marty Moore, Jordi Murphy; those guys were regularly playing during the Six Nations window two years ago. I remember Jordi Murphy playing a fantastic game against Scarlets in the Six Nations window.
“This year, I’m watching Josh van der Flier, and Jack O’Donoghue, and Jack Conan, and other loose forwards, who may be putting the pressure on Jordi Murphy in years to come.
"And that’s the sort of production line that you’re looking for the provinces to provide, and at the same time, it’s a real boon for the provinces, because the broader their base, the greater their strength in depth, the more competitive they can be on two fronts, because it is very, very difficult.
“And I think that’s one of the problems that Leinster had this year is that they’ve truncated the European season, so very soon after the Six Nations, just two weeks after, you’re into a quarter-final, and two weeks after that you’re into a semi-final.
"If players have played the last Tests in the Six Nations, and they play the next four weeks consecutively, by the time they get to that semi-final, you’re going to be tired, and you’re not going to be optimally prepared for the game.”