Passionate Irish smarter under Schmidt: Hansen

Dublin (AFP) –


Ireland's passion remains but their improvement over the past three years as a rugby team is down to Joe Schmidt turning them into a smarter unit, says New Zealand coach Steve Hansen.

Schmidt, a New Zealander like Hansen and whose coaching skills were honed back home before a spell as assistant to Vern Cotter at Clermont in France, has certainly transformed Ireland since he replaced the studious Declan Kidney in 2013.

Within months of Schmidt, 51, taking over the reins the Irish won the 2014 Six Nations title and added another the following year.

Schmidt, who enjoyed a hugely successful spell as head coach of Irish province Leinster, has also made them more competitive and less inhibited when it comes to taking on the southern hemisphere powerhouses.

They went close to a first series win in South Africa this summer and then claimed the scalp of all scalps the All Blacks in Chicago a fortnight ago -- Ireland's first win in 29 Test meetings stretching back 111 years even before the country gained its independence from Britain.

"He has got them playing. They are smarter," said Hansen on Thursday as he contemplates avenging that defeat in Dublin on Saturday.

"Ireland has always been passionate on and off the pitch and they're good people, I like their company.

"They like getting behind a cause.

"But Joe has improved their fitness and also honed them in the how, why and when...small words but very important ones.

"Now they are better at making decisions."

- 'Right frame of mind' -

Schmidt's playmaker in chief, fly-half Jonathan Sexton, believes a sign of the improvement is the team beginning to shed the image of being able only to put one big performance together and then losing.

"We've shown at times that we have got over that," said the 31-year-old, who played under Schmidt at Leinster.

"Two years ago we beat South Africa and Australia back to back and we've had other victories back to back.

"However, there's still an element that we've spoken about a little bit about needing to back it up, but really, again, that's performance driven in that regard.

"Turning up on the day, making sure emotionally, physically that we're ready to go and in the right frame of mind as we were last time (in Chicago) and then the result will come after that."

Sexton, who has formed a superb halfback partnership with Conor Murray, believes also there is a lot more depth to the playing resources these days than there was and therefore much more competition for places.

"I think we definitely built a good bit of depth through the Six Nations and through the summer tour with the amount of injuries that we had to sort of senior players, especially in the Six Nations and a little bit again in South Africa," said Sexton.

However, Sexton said this greater pool of talent is crucial if they are to win a Six Nations Grand Slam or a World Cup -- a plethora of injuries robbed them of key players for the World Cup quarter-final last year against Argentina and they were overwhelmed by a rampant Pumas side.

For Ireland's most unpredictable player Simon Zebo ironically consistency is the key to the Irish being able to really be considered a viable contender for the ultimate prize -- the World Cup.

"If we want to grow as a squad and compete with the best teams in the world, you have to do it on a consistent basis," said the 26-year-old wing.

"That means we have to show up for 80 minutes again this week. We have to be there or thereabouts come 75-80 minutes to get the win.

"We know what we have to do, that's show consistency at the highest stage against the best teams in the world and prove it's not a once-off.