Tuesday 22 August 2017

'When we lose, I do myself in. I don't need anyone else to do it'

Joe Schmidt knows his extended family are planning a hostile reception today, as he tells Brendan Fanning

W ere he not a pretty modest sort of bloke, Joe Schmidt would surely have been convinced he was blessed with a magic touch.

Just as he is about to wrap up his three years at Clermont as backs coach, they go and win their first French Championship. Of course he hadn't cornered the market on good timing -- Tony McGahan, for example, was only a short time on board the Munster coaching team when, in 2006, they won their first Heineken Cup -- but the Clermont case was special. They had chased the Bouclier de Brennus to the point where they were almost afraid to set foot on the field on finals day.

It was an astonishing record: 100 years of trying; 10 lost finals, three of which had come back to back to 2009. And then in 2010, at the fourth straight attempt, they finally do it. Off you go, Joe.

You could only be happy for him, for given what was ahead in Leinster you thought he would need something to sustain him. The consensus was that a pre-World Cup season -- and particularly given the grief of the 2007 tournament -- was not a great time to be taking over a provincial side. The national question was the only one on the agenda.

Then, a few weeks into his first role as the main man rather then assistant to the main man, Leinster start looking like they need a parachute to slow their descent. One win in September and already there were hounds on his tail. True, they weren't the sharpest canines in the bunch, but they could bark alright. And while he claims he wasn't listening, for sure he heard the racket.

"For me personally, I question myself whether we win, lose or draw," Schmidt says. "When we lose, I do myself in -- I don't need anyone else to write it or question my competence. I'm always questioning myself, asking 'did I get that right? Should we have played like that? Was that the right selection?' You're never absolutely sure of yourself really."

Indeed. That kind of sureness leads to complacency. And today in a throbbing Stade Marcel Michelin, Leinster -- despite six wins from the last seven games, and a bonus point from that one defeat -- will be a long way from being absolutely sure of themselves.

In his Dublin home Schmidt has prominently displayed a picture of the Puy de Dome, the mountain that overlooks Clermont and gives focus to the region. He keeps tabs on what's happening back there, for his three years in the Auvergne were a rich experience for his wife and three kids. And before they have had a chance to reflect on his time as a Clermontoi, he's bringing Leinster to show them around.

"It will be really good seeing everyone. But I suppose there's no place I'd rather win. It's like when you're competing with your brother or something -- you always want to get one up on family. Certainly it was an extended family for me for three years. I'm sure they feel the same way -- and there's a lot more of them than me! That'll make it a little bit tougher."

And how tough is that going to be. The image we have of Clermont at home is not unlike that of Parc des Princes when Ireland would be washed away every other year by wave after wave of French attacks. You imagine it must have been really satisfying to be part of the coaching team in the Heineken Cup, knowing that the away side came having practised the brace position more than anything else. He positively glows when he recalls those days.

"To be brutally honest, and it probably smacks of arrogance a little bit, but we never really cared what they did," he says. "We were going to do what we were going to do. The advantage you've got with Clermont is that if they (the opposition) want to take you on up front, well we'll bash them there; if they want to run around you, well we'll just knock them over there. If they want to put the ball in behind you, well Brock James will kick it twice as far back, or Anthony Floch will or Benoit Baby will because they've all got massive punts on them.

"And if they kick poorly in behind you, Nalaga's going to bring it back, or Malzieu's going to bring it back -- so they'll hurt you anyway. We just said: 'you do what you want to do and we'll do what we want to do.' That was pretty much the attitude. I don't know if that sounds arrogant. But -- on reflection it didn't at the time but now that I look back on it, it seemed to work."

Big guns came and big guns jammed. Munster, Wasps, Scarlets -- all arrived at the top of their game and all left as losers -- though in Munster's case they twice came away with something to show for their efforts, and in both cases those losing bonus points were vital.

But when the home team would get a run on them it always looked like the hunted were in a state of panic. And the noise was something else, an alien experience for Schmidt.

"I'd coached in the NPC and Super 14 in New Zealand, and Ranfurly Shield play-off matches, and play-off matches in South Africa for the Super 14 and I don't think I ever met a more passionate crowd. They are incredible. They chant; they sing; they have a little band in the corner that bangs away. And even to see my kids jumping up and down.

"They have this phrase: 'Qui ne saute pas n'est pas Auvergnat!' Whoever doesn't jump isn't a real Auvergnat, a real Clermontoi. So the whole stand is jumping up and down. You see a crowd normally and it's static -- you see this crowd and it's like this . . . For me it was completely foreign. I guess the stands come up reasonably directly so certainly the whole thing reverberates with the noise and it's a fantastic atmosphere. Especially dare I say it when Clermont are going well. Hopefully it's a bit quieter (on Sunday)."

Probably not. The memory of last season's cop-out in the RDS is still fresh in the minds of Clermont players and supporters. So there is a double-barrel effect here: payback, plus surviving in Europe. And that's a big deal to them now.

"I was standing about two foot from Aurelien Rougerie when he said to 65,000 people in the Place de Jaude, at the reception after we had won the Bouclier last season -- he said we've finally got the Bouclier de Brennus -- now let's chase Europe. I think even with the players they're trying to get in for next year -- I see Regan King and Lee Byrne are on the horizon. I don't think things are going to change a heck of a lot for Clermont.

"They're really going to keep chasing Europe so we'd like to just put them off for a year if we can."

If Leinster succeed, you can see him apologising to the locals for having spoilt the party. And his apology being accepted. Modesty has its place.

Sunday Independent

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