Joe Schmidt shed ‘nearly man’ tag but his Leinster future could hinge on derby clash
Joe Schmidt spent most of his working life trying to become a winner. But the fates perennially mocked him. Seconds he could manage; but as Walter Hagen said, who remembers them?
Twice when he coached the Palmerston North Boys' High School 1st XV in New Zealand, they were runners-up in the national competition. He was second once in the Super 14 during a three-year stint as Auckland Blues assistant coach, he was second twice with Clermont in the 2008 and 2009 French Top 14.
Finally, last June, he managed to get the cherished 'W', thanks to Clermont's belated acquisition of the Bouclier de Brennus, France's venerable championship rugby prize.
True, he'd had some success but merely as a supporting actor; with Vern Cotter, he helped Bay of Plenty to a Ranfurly Shield.
He would ride shotgun with his Kiwi friend in France too for three years before deciding to return to Ireland, where he had first docked 15 years ago, pitching up in Mullingar of all places.
This time around, the omens were at once brimful of foreboding and anticipation. Leinster's Heineken Cup and Magners League winners were ready to move on from the Michael Cheika era.
At 44, Schmidt was one of the brightest coaching talents around and his signing was perceived as a coup, with his former Auckland Blues prodigy Isa Nacewa's glowing tribute of his old mentor an early endorsement for Leinster's perspicacity, as neutrals gushed at the putative expansion of Leinster's increasingly defensive approach.
However, others were worried that the arrival of a relative novice at the head coaching game may unnecessarily rock the foundations of an organisation already anticipating key absences, from Alan Gaffney and Kurt McQuilkin in the control room, to Malcolm O'Kelly and Girvan Dempsey at the coal face.
After the first completed month of the new season, the sceptics are winning the argument as a glance at the facts -- three defeats in four -- and at the Magners League table can attest.
As much as the supporters may begin to question in what direction their once all-conquering European champions are headed, the puzzled new coach may well be asking himself the same question unless he and his side can arrest the slump.
It's not as if he didn't expect his credentials to be challenged more sternly than ever before. Asked in this newspaper last June why he decided to take up Leinster's offer to succeed Cheika, Schmidt's delayed response was instructive.
"That's a tough question -- I am not sure," he replied, before adding: "Whoever was Michael's successor was going to have a tough job. So it will be a tough job for me in the first year."
Few publicly quibbled with the choice; even more pointedly, few quibbled with the decision not to replace McQuilkin as defensive coach. That responsibility lies with the new coach, not with Leinster, as CEO Mick Dawson confirmed earlier this year.
Yet Cheika had bequeathed a "winning culture", utterly subsumed by Grand Slam and Heineken Cup winners, so surely this imposing institution was now inured to the foibles of a coaching baton change?
"They are getting a good coach; he will improve them," said Cotter. "He is a good man-manager, is very shrewd and he knows his back-line play and manipulation of the opposition.
"He is smart, he always asks questions of himself and he will certainly offer those talented Leinster back-line players something else. They will be challenged and that is probably what they need. It is Joe's first role as head coach and it will be interesting for him. But I don't doubt he will go well."
On the evidence of the month just gone, this may take some time and that is a commodity that is in short supply. Lose to Munster in front of the biggest attendance yet in the new Lansdowne Road stadium and Leinster will be some 16 points shy of their league rivals.
Lose their opening Heineken Cup game at home the following week and patience will wear extremely thin among the more than 13,000 season-ticket holders.
The signs have been ominous, the manner of defeats more alarming than anything. The pitiful tackling. The poverty of the ball-carrying. The pathetic breakdown work. The piteous lineout. All of this has been underscored by a worrying collective slump of the shoulders, a body language through the prism of which Tony Ward described watching a disinterested Brian O'Driscoll last weekend.
This time five years ago, O'Driscoll was flirting with Biarritz before he had played a match for Cheika's Leinster; their relationship eventually evolved despite a terrible beginning.
Schmidt may need to earn his players' respect; Leinster have a dressing-room of forceful personalities. But respect must be mutual.
Hence the training ground spies reporting vicious exchanges should offer some encouragement to those supporters desperately seeking a resuscitation of their team's fire and brimstone.
There has been much nonsense spoken about systems and such; but missing 21 tackles against a poor Edinburgh side is not about a systems failure. It represents something more fundamental than that and rugby's physical nature will always expose such fallibility.
Schmidt, an enterprising and intelligent bloke, has arrived here seeking to reacquaint Leinster with their former flair, bowing to the new rules which reward ball in hand more than ever.
It is a praiseworthy philosophy but expediency may have to park the brave experiment, at least temporarily. Results are vital and Leinster would gladly take a 3-0 win from a 60-metre penalty tomorrow, if only to restore confidence to squad and supporters ahead of the fiendishly difficult Heineken Cup ties against Racing Metro and Saracens.
Schmidt has made some curious selection decisions even if he has been affected by IRFU player management scheme and the losses of Jonathan Sexton and Stan Wright have been inestimable.
Schmidt is made of stern stuff; hence his necessarily blunt appraisal of his team's deficiencies during the embarrassment in Edinburgh last weekend. Not as abrasive as Cheika, Schmidt is still a steely chap.
Two years ago, his then six-year-old son Luke was struck down with a brain tumour but survived after a nine-hour operation. "That puts rugby in perspective," he said.
"I think it's been big call for him coming over here with his family, and it's massive for his career," Leinster manager Guy Easterby said earlier this season. "I think we've picked the right man and the right team to take us on to that next level."
Schmidt has spent too long being second best. He admitted this week that he didn't know the history behind the Munster/Leinster rivalry. By tomorrow evening, the fixture may tell us much more about his future.