‘Our preparation was key’

Ireland forwards coach John Plumtree talks to SIMON BORCHARDT about winning the Six Nations, the initial challenges his family faced in Dublin, that loss to the All Blacks, and his future.

What was the key to Ireland's Six Nations win?
One of the key things was our preparation on and off the field throughout the campaign. The players took on the responsibility of understanding the detail of the game plans and nailing down their own roles, so that it was automatic on the field. This made trainings more accurate and kept the training times shorter.

How did you and the team celebrate after beating France in Paris?
We had a traditional post-match function and then went back to the hotel with our partners, where we celebrated. A massive crowd met us on our return to Dublin. Then we had a party at a five-star hotel with all our families, kids, parents etc, which was very special.

What were you thinking when Ireland conceded a penalty in the last minute in Paris and then had to defend? Did it bring back memories of the All Blacks game last November?
The last couple of minutes were very stressful as we were at the wrong end of the field without possession. We also had to face a fired-up French front row at the end, hunting for a scrum penalty, and luckily it never came. The choke tackle at the end of the game was a relief.

How will you remember Brian O'Driscoll?
Brian is a great Irishman. He has been an outstanding ambassador for Ireland. He is one of the greatest to have ever played the game. I was amazed at his humility as a person and he is very passionate about his family. For him to become the most capped Test player [141] and then to win the Six Nations in Paris was a fairytale finish for him and his family. I was very lucky as a coach to have the opportunity to share these moments with him.

Let's go back to the beginning, as far as you and Ireland are concerned. When did head coach Joe Schmidt ask if you were available to be his forwards coach?
Joe phoned me after my agent Rod Labuschagne let the Ireland Rugby Football Union know I may become available [as the Sharks were not going to renew his contract]. Joe and I know each other from our days coaching against each other in New Zealand – he had the Bay of Plenty and I had Wellington. Then he worked for the Blues while I was with the Sharks. We have mutual respect for each other and when he asked if I was interested, I said yes.

What appealed to you most about the job?
The opportunity to coach at international level. The Six Nations is a fantastic competition and it’s going to be great to be involved in next year’s World Cup.

Did you speak to former Ireland forwards coach Gert Smal before taking the job?
Gert was fantastic with me when I arrived in Dublin. I have a lot of respect for him as a coach and a man, and he is very popular in Ireland. We met for coffee and chatted about the Irish set-up and shared ideas. He, his wife Patty, my wife Lara and I had a few drinks in a festive Irish bar.  

You went from living in a big house in sunny Umhlanga to a small apartment in freezing Dublin. How difficult an adjustment was that for you, your wife and your three boys?
It was a massive adjustment. When we first walked into our apartment, we spent a few minutes looking for the rest of it! My teenage boys are pretty big, and when they were getting ready for school we spent most of the time tripping over each other. It would have made good reality TV.

You’re now living in Smal’s former house, which is a stone’s throw from Lansdowne Road. Do you and your family feel a bit more settled? 
Yeah, the kids have their own rooms and there’s a man cave – as Lara calls it – with a PlayStation and pool table. We have a room to enjoy a glass of wine in peace [laughs]. I can walk to work and gym and the boys can catch the train. But we do still miss our friends and family a lot. 

Did you find it difficult to be an assistant coach again having been head coach at the Sharks for five years?
Being an assistant coach is not a problem if you have a lot of respect for the head coach. Joe knows the rugby landscape here inside out and it has been refreshing for me to learn from him. I have had fantastic assistants in the past and I know how valuable they are to the head coach.

Ireland began a new era last November with a big win against Samoa, but then lost badly to the Wallabies. What did you coaches say to the players after that performance, with a match against the All Blacks still to come?
We were annoyed with our performance against Australia but it fuelled our desire to do something special against the All Blacks.

What work did you put into the All Blacks game?
I study the opposition’s set pieces thoroughly, looking at trends, etc. I then give that information to the leaders in the team and work out strategies, which are incorporated into our preparation. I would imagine it’s nothing other coaches don’t do.

What was more painful – losing that game to the All Blacks in the last play of the game or the 2007 Super Rugby final, when the Bulls snatched victory against the Sharks?
Test rugby is like a final, so they both hurt – a lot.

What could Ireland have done differently to have prevented the last All Blacks try from being scored?
The All Blacks went through 12 phases from side to side. They pushed us to the limit, we made a couple of defensive errors and eventually cracked. Their impact players made a big difference to their finish in that game. It’s a pity we didn’t score from our last driving maul where they collapsed us close to the line.

Since your appointment, Ireland’s forwards have become masters of the lineout driving maul, with both of the team’s tries against Wales coming from this attacking weapon. How did you achieve this?
Ireland’s provincial sides all enjoy driving and Gert also had the Ireland pack driving while he was here. I have just made small adjustments to the way they do things and made sure everyone understands their role.

What work has gone into the scrum and the breakdown?
[Lock and captain] Paul O’Connell and the other leaders have worked hard to organise the pack. [Consultant] Greg Feek works hard on the scrum, and the breakdown is continually under our scrutiny.

Which of Ireland’s forwards have impressed you the most?
I have been very impressed with the players’ work ethic – they spend hours doing their homework and the leaders are committed and driven. O’Connell is right up there in terms of leadership ability and has the respect of his team-mates and management. Cian Healy is an outstanding loosehead prop.

Ireland have been grouped with France and Italy for next year’s World Cup, and could face Argentina in the quarter-finals. What is your main focus heading into the tournament?
We are focusing on improving our squad depth as injuries do play a role in the build-up to a World Cup. We haven’t got as much depth as some of the other top six countries.

Will you return to the southern hemisphere after the World Cup and if so, where would you prefer to go?
As a coach it’s hard to plan for the future, as my experience in South Africa shows, but I like to think New Zealand is my next step. My dad hasn’t even met my youngest son, which is terrible, so spending time with family will take priority.

– This interview first appeared in the April 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine and was updated after Ireland's Six Nations win

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