Schmidt ideal Ireland coach if Kidney gets nod for Lions
The period after Eddie O'Sullivan stepped down as Ireland coach in 2008 was a strange one for Irish rugby. Declan Kidney was the obvious, merited and natural choice to succeed him but, for a couple of months, there was wild speculation as to who would fill the position.
No name besides Kidney's had a proper ring to it, with seemingly everyone from Heyneke Meyer to Wee Jock Poo Pong McPlop put forward as a potential head man.
Finally, thankfully, sense prevailed and Kidney was handed the gig, with a Grand Slam captured less than 12 months later. Three years since his appointment, with a World Cup looming, it is no harm to take a look at the Irish coaching issue and assess who should succeed Kidney when that day arrives.
There is one outstanding candidate and, without wishing to put the hex on him heading into the critical portion of his double title-chasing debut season, that candidate is Leinster coach Joe Schmidt.
In his team selections, rugby philosophy, dealings with the media and particularly in the way he came through a challenging opening few weeks (when he was dismissed in some quarters as not being up to the job), Schmidt has been overwhelmingly impressive.
He has also been good for the national side, developing the skill-sets of his established Irish players while helping to develop the next generation. This is a crucial factor because Irish rugby has had its share of provincial coaches hindering national agendas under the exacting terms of their job specifications.
The national side should always take priority but that is easier said than done when you are being judged on trophies, and from Jean de Villiers to Pedrie Wannenburg to CJ van der Linde we have had regular examples of non-Irish qualified players holding back the progress of home-grown talent.
Michael Cheika upped the professional ante at Leinster, and success followed, but the Australian could not be said to have been driven by a national agenda, and while his successor also operates under a narrow individual focus, Schmidt has struck a far better balance.
Of the 15 players who started the Heineken Cup quarter-final win over Leicester (and the likely starting XV for Saturday's semi-final against Toulouse) only three -- Richardt Strauss, Nathan Hines and Isa Nacewa -- were non-Irish qualified, while Schmidt's contribution to Ireland's future has seen regular game time given to the likes of Eoin O'Malley, Rhys Ruddock and Dominic Ryan.
So how do we get him involved with Ireland? Alan Gaffney's role as backs coach is expected to become vacant after the World Cup but, although the Australian carried out dual roles with Leinster and Ireland during the unbeaten Grand Slam year in 2009, asking Schmidt to help out with the Ireland backs while still directing Leinster's operations is impractical.
It needs a full-time commitment and he has now graduated beyond the role of assistant. And, even after less than one season as top man, Schmidt's credentials look impeccable.
The question is when? Under our oft-stated conviction that Kidney will guide Ireland to their first World Cup semi-final later this year, the Corkman would become an outstanding candidate to oversee the Lions tour to Australia in 2013.
Backing up his 2009 Grand Slam with World Cup achievement would carry on Kidney's record of upward progression throughout his coaching career and make him the ideal candidate to mastermind a first Lions series win since 1997. With the Ireland coach's contract likely to be decided after the World Cup (around the time the Lions position should also be filled) the timeline fits and would allow Schmidt to take over from Kidney at the end of the 2011/2012 season.
When asked here last February if he saw himself as Ireland coach down the line, Schmidt gave a typically unassuming answer: "To be honest, part of me still wants to be an assistant coach, which takes you out of the spotlight. It (coaching Ireland) is not something I've thought about and I couldn't say it's really an ambition of mine because I don't tend to plan ahead."
Practical objections centre around the New Zealander still having a year to run on his provincial contract, but the answer to that one is ... tear it up. Tough on Leinster, but Ireland comes first.
Kidney for the Lions, Schmidt for Ireland ... now that has a nice ring to it.