IN AUTUMN 2010 Magners, the then sponsor of the Celtic League, launched that season’s competition in the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff. It was the usual drill: over from Ireland the night before for a dinner and extended sampling of the sponsor’s product; drag yourself out of bed the next morning for the actual launch with the standard round of media interviews. And then off to the airport and home with the same old quotes from the same old faces.
One of the new faces that year, however, was an impossibly innocent-looking New Zealander by the name of Joe Schmidt. He had just taken over Leinster from the volcanic Michael Cheika. The logistics of the operation meant that some of the Irish provinces’ coaches, captains and managers were on the same transport back to the airport. And it was on that journey that we formed the opinion that Schmidt was an extraordinarily tolerant man.
He was sitting beside one of our colleagues, who had been up later than most of us the night before, and had just put out his hurried smoke to board the bus and plonk himself down beside the Kiwi. For Schmidt it must have been a sensory assault: the stale drink mixed with the tobacco, and all of it delivered at close quarters and with hardly a pause to draw foul breath.
We watched for any sign of flinching from the new coach. Nothing. Barely a blink. He sucked it up, and more than that he appeared actually engaged in the exchange, which was mostly one way. It was a remarkable display of forbearance.
Our first impressions were a bit wide of the mark, however. Schmidt is far from tolerant. Rather he is exacting, demanding and controlling of every detail that affects his squad and how it might perform. His players are in awe of his forensic analysis and fearful of being the one caught in the headlights when the music stops at review sessions. You don’t want to get on his wrong side.
To the general public, however, he is genial and modest and always in good humour. He does a lot of public speaking at rugby clubs around the country and would never consider accepting a fee. It is good public relations, a business for which he has a natural flair. The aggregate of all of this is that Schmidt is the most popular national coach in the history of Irish sport. Given that he has been in the country for nearly five years – three with Leinster, and this is his second season with Ireland – it is unique to have covered so much ground without churning it up with someone.
To continue the theme, he’s pretty popular in France as well. Schmidt’s three years as assistant to Vern Cotter in Clermont was the start of his OE – overseas experience – having graduated into professional coaching from teaching in a secondary school in his native Manawatu, for whom he played on the wing.
His coaching CV took him from the schools game with the New Zealand national side to Bay of Plenty with Cotter, and then as backs coach with Auckland, before fetching up in France to hook up again with Cotter. Having spent a lifetime trying to win the league – ten finals lost out of ten – Clermont did it in 2010 at the 11th attempt to give Schmidt the perfect send-off. Then he came to Leinster and won four trophies in three seasons.
His elevation to the Ireland job was unavoidable. In November, having led Ireland to the Six Nations Championship nine months earlier, he coped with missing a handful of important players to scoop Ireland’s first clean sweep in a three-game series since 2006. And right on cue, in World Cup year, Schmidt’s team have France and England, traditionally their toughest fixtures, at home in the Six Nations Championship.
The controlling side of his personality is being fully extended now in trying to dampen the fire of expectation sweeping the land. Whatever is being said about repeating the championship success of last season, certainly the target of breaking new ground in the World Cup by getting to the last four is in flashing neon.
As luck would have it for Schmidt, Ireland currently have their best ever coverage across the squad. In some areas – back three and back row for example – he is weighed down with options. At half-back, where for years there was a yawning gap behind Ronan O’Gara, now there are four contenders – which is just as well as the Lion Johnny Sexton will not be available until the France game in round two, by which time his concussion rest will be over.
The greatest areas of concern for Schmidt are at tight head – not as bad as in the recent past, but still not great – and second row. For the former, Mike Ross has slipped out of pole position in Leinster and it’s not clear that his replacement there, Marty Moore, pictured below, is ready to lead the charge from the starting gun.
As for second row, the options are decent enough, but all of a sudden Paul O’Connell finds himself virtually having to prove himself all over again.
At 35, the prospect of the 2009 British and Irish Lions captain slipping over the hill before the World Cup is something Schmidt must dread, having invested the leadership in him. O’Connell had his worst game in living memory in the demolition that was Munster’s defeat by Saracens a fortnight ago, which has brought the issue to the surface, but looked a lot more comfortable in the landslide against Sale last weekend.
So O’Connell will need to look the part against Italy, and especially against France a week later. Schmidt will spend the next week talking up the Italians, but he knows that defeat in Rome is unthinkable for this squad given how far they have moved forward since the group who lost there two years ago under Declan Kidney.
The new coach deserves heaps of credit for the way he has crafted and schemed and challenged his players. Johnny Sexton describes him as being ruthless...“but with a smile on his face”.
That might explain how he was able to sit through that endurance test back in 2010. He never batted an eyelid. ✱